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GOP candidates focus on economy in debate

South Carolina's four Republican gubernatorial candidates said they would bring a different approach to state job recruitment efforts, a critique of Gov. Mark Sanford's eight years in office.

One of them, Lexington Rep. Nikki Haley, was asked if recent rumors about her personal life would distract from efforts to attract jobs.

The debate, hosted atFrancis Marion University in Florence, kept a tight focus on the economy - the No. 1 issue among Pee Dee voters according to a poll by local television and radio.

Often the candidates, Attorney General Henry McMaster, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and Haley claimed Sanford's efforts had fallen short, particularly in working with the legislature.

McMaster said he learned from former Gov. Carroll Campbell's style, which was not as publicly confrontational as Sanford's.

"Most of the fighting, most of the arm-twisting was behind the scenes," McMaster said. "The Sanford years have taught us you've got to work with people to get things done."

Haley said she would set clear goals with lawmakers and work as a team throughout the legislative process, two criticisms lawmakers have had of Sanford.

"When you let known the circumstances before they happen, the legislature 70 percent of the time will make the right decision," Haley said. "Thirty percent of the time, we might fight a little bit. But at the end of the day, we're going to get things done."

Haley said a state political blogger's recent accusation of an "improper physical relationship" with her would not be a distraction. The blogger - who Haley once hired for public relations work - has provided phone records showing hundreds of calls between the two, often late at night.

"The questions raised about my personal life aren't true," she said.

The other candidates criticized the claims, though Barrett said the state "needs leaders above reproach."

Sanford, a Haley ally whose own admissions of infidelity had lawmakers weighing his removal, commented on the brewing controversy earlier Tuesday. Sanford said he did not believe blogger Will Folks' public allegations against Haley. Folks was once Sanford's communications director, so the governor knows both Folks and Haley well.

Sanford also questioned the timing of Folks' public claim. Folks, who has backed Haley's campaign on his blog, has consistently said he has no relationship with a competing campaign and he is not being paid, as Haley once alleged.

All four candidates opposed changing the state constitution to allow gambling in an attempt to create jobs. Instead, Barrett said, nuclear energy and natural gas deposits could provide "real jobs, real growth and real economic activity."

Two candidates, Barrett and McMaster, emphasized having children read by the time they finish third grade to improve state K-12 education. Haley argued for cutting administration costs, while Bauer said schools needed more discipline and should require parental involvement. All four candidates said they supported some form of school choice.

When asked for a job-creation accomplishment, Bauer mentioned Sonic Automotive, one of many employers with whom he has personally met.

"I've been doing a lot of things in economic development as the number two guy in the state when the governor hasn't been able to fill that duty," he said.

Barrett cited his vote to extend former President George W. Bush's tax cuts, as well as his bill that would allow the state to keep all of its federal highway money as job creators.

Haley noted she served on the House conference committees for workers' compensation and coastal insurance legislation, measures she said are pro-business.

McMaster noted his lawsuit to prevent North Carolina industry from tapping the Catawba River, as well as Internet predator and domestic violence legislation.

"I've gotten more things passed than my opponents combined, and I do not serve in a legislative body," McMaster said.

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