South Carolina GOP gubernatorial candidates were in Charleston last week, spouting the “Holy City” nickname over and over again, as well as garnering a statewide audience for the first real debate of the primary season. If the goal was to avoid any comparisons between poor people and feral animals, everyone walked away a winner.

Congressman Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. André Bauer, state Rep. Nikki Haley, and Attorney General Henry McMaster never let the topic stray too far from jobs and bringing new business to South Carolina, with only a few detours to address Bauer’s big mouth, Sanford’s sleazy trip, and a quiz on the candidates’ pick for their favorite polarizing U.S. senator.

Meet the Candidates

Haley stuck to her credentials as a legislative reformer, pressing for a tax code overhaul and a principled stance against government spending.

“The one thing that I can tell you from my experience in the family business was how hard it was to make a dollar and how easy it was for the government to take it,” she told the crowd.

The state House member has been a strong supporter of Sanford and said she, too, would have refused federal stimulus money, regardless of the value of a local project or the threat that money would be spent somewhere else.

“I do not want any Washington bailout money,” she said.

Other candidates disagreed. “That is our money that we’re sending to Washington, and we need to get it back,” McMaster said.

Wrapping up his second term as the state’s top attorney, McMaster pointed to his executive experience.

“I have a record of finding the problems, finding the solutions, and getting the job done,” he said.

Record-setting unemployment numbers are a real drag on the current administration, but it gave candidates something to promise. Winning the lottery for the first question — on business and jobs, of course — McMaster got to offer the “South Carolina is open for business” line (we really should just put it on the state seal).

Barrett is also focused on business, referencing his new jobs plan, including a focus on the Commerce Department, as well as the state’s shipping potential. He also sees the Charleston port as a lynch-pin in job growth, even in the Upstate.

“I think about Fuji, Michelin, BMW, Caterpillar — companies that would not be here in South Carolina were it not for a strong port,” Barrett said. “Having a governor that is involved is extremely important.”

Critics from across the nation have turned again to the gaffe-friendly Palmetto State after Bauer’s recent comments about feeding strays and public assistance programs. The lite gov bet the bank on those comments, saying that the media turned it into a big deal and that most conservatives agree with him. “I’m not running for governor to talk about the easy things,” he said.

But the criticism likely won’t be going away. In his opening marks, McMaster included “maturity” among the qualities that make him the best candidate.

Bauer also argued that he’s done what has been asked of him over the past seven years as No. 2, including trips as an economic development ambassador and building a quality program for the state’s seniors.

On Sanford

Asked about the dead weight of the Sanford administration, the candidates offered a wealth of good praise, as the governor sat in the front row.

Pressed on Sanford’s high-profile Argentinian scandal, Haley spoke in a regretful tone of the governor’s lost potential.

“This is about doing the right thing for the people in this state,” she said. “What we learned is that we should never have put the reform movement on one person.”

Barrett spent less time on the scandal and more time on Sanford’s style in Columbia — a combative approach that has alienated most of the state leaders in his own party.

“As governor, you’ve got to work with people,” Barret said. “My style is to bring people together.”

Picking Favorites

In perhaps the most insightful moment of the night, candidates were basically asked to name their favorite U.S. senator from South Carolina: conservative Tea Party guy Jim DeMint or consensus-building middle-of-the-road Republican Lindsey Graham.

Bauer and Haley couldn’t sing DeMint’s praises fast enough, but both Barrett and McMaster took a much more reserved approach to the lingering debate about whether moderate conservatives should be welcome among the party’s ranks.

“We have to understand there are different ideas in our party,” Barrett said.

McMaster added that he was the state party chair for nine years.

“I spent a lot of time trying to build this party,” he said. “I’m not going to spend time driving a wedge in it.”

Final Thoughts

André Bauer — In a week when everyone from the president to Bauer’s GOP opponents to the Starbucks barista were talking about jobs, the lieutenant governor continued to put the focus on lazy welfare moms. That’s not what people are worried about, particularly in a down economy.

Nikki Haley — At this point in the campaign, for a candidate largely unknown outside of her district, any attention is good attention. And Haley certainly left the debate with fresh supporters. But it was crystal clear that Haley is a Sanford candidate. There are some people dreaming of another four years of blind principles, but not enough.

Henry McMaster — The 61-year-old McMaster certainly offers the appeal of an elder statesman, similar to the folksy charm of Fritz Holling. Of course, the problem is that Hollings was a much younger man of 42 years when he became governor of South Carolina. Carroll Campbell, David Beasely, Jim Hodges, and Mark Sanford were also at the top of the hill, not over it. Standing with the three other candidates last week, the age gap is dramatic and could be a factor.

Gresham Barrett — The congressman has the same problem that Haley does regarding statewide obscurity, but he’s got enough campaign cash to properly introduce himself and he’s focused on a priority people can relate to: jobs. Let’s take a quick quiz. Think of the last time you were talking to a friend about welfare queens or reforming the state’s tax code. Now think about the last time you talked about job security.

Fun With Numbers: The GOP field

Cash on Hand as of jan. 10:

Gresham Barrett: $1.51 million

André Bauer: $1.05 million

Nikki Haley: $406,000

Henry McMaster: $1.24 million

Total contributions:

Gresham Barrett: $2,050,126

André Bauer: $819,563

Nikki Haley: $559,302

Henry McMaster: $1,454,464

• Payday lenders and tobacco companies were frequent contributors to Barrett, McMaster, and Bauer, as were Norfolk Southern and CSX rail lines.

• André Bauer, known for his lead foot, looks like the candidate for the race car dads, with $1,000 donations from Darlington Raceway and the Jeff Gordon Racing School.

• Bauer also received a $1,000 donation from Thomas Ravenel. We’re anxiously awaiting the press conference announcing the endorsement.

• Ravenel’s father, former Congressman Arthur Ravenel, is a McMaster supporter, offering more than $1,300 toward the AG’s campaign. McMaster also has received financial support from restaurant and hotel developer Hank Holliday and conservationist Dana Beach.

• McMaster has also snagged nearly $25,000 from Utah. No, it’s not coming from the Mormon church — at least not directly. The cash is likely due to McMaster’s friendship with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, now the ambassador to China.

• Barrett has been criticized for spending too much time away from Washington, but he’s been cashing a lot of checks from his coworkers in the Capitol.

• Most notable among Haley’s donations was the number of small, out-of-state checks, likely from fiscal conservative supporters.

• Favorite campaign donation: McMaster has received $1,000 from Smithfields Foods, the parent company of Butterball turkey.

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