Democratic gubernatorial nominee Vincent Sheheen is trying to fight the battle against Republican nominee Nikki Haley on her own turf, attempting to wrest away Haley's signature campaign issue.
Haley, a state representative from Lexington, has made open government - including transparency by public officials - her central primary campaign plank.
But Sheheen's release, two weeks ago, of 10 years of his tax records and, last week, of his legislative e-mails, has left Haley playing catch-up.
For its part, Haley's campaign has argued Sheheen, a state senator from Camden, is ducking questions about whether the Democrat supports the recently approved national health insurance law and the Obama administration's lawsuit challenging Arizona's immigration law, two issues Sheheen could have to deal with if elected governor.
Observers said Haley is still a favorite to win in November in conservative-leaning South Carolina. But, they add, Sheheen may be planting doubts that Haley's actions match her rhetoric.
"She's playing total defense on this," said Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard. "Every move is made by Sheheen and she's responding."
During the GOP primary, Haley proposed lawmakers disclose their income. Later, when challenged by Republican opponent Gresham Barrett to release her income tax records, Haley acknowledged an engineering firm paid her $42,500 in consulting fees while she was a legislator in 2007-2009. Haley said she realized the need for legislators to disclose their income between finishing her work for the firm in 2008 and filing a bill to require financial disclosure by legislators at the end of 2009.
Sheheen upped the income tax ante by releasing 10 years of his tax records, covering his tenure as a legislator.
Haley released three more years of tax records Wednesday, meaning she too had released her taxes for the period when she was a legislator.
But Haley's most recent disclosure raised more questions.
They showed that Haley, who touts her talents as an accountant as a qualification to run state government, twice paid her taxes more than a year late. They also showed Haley - campaigning as a fiscal conservative - has been heavily indebted, buying a $300,000 home and adding a line of credit - of up to $110,000 - while her family, in one year, made barely $40,000.
Asked how her family could afford that much debt - paying $20,000 a year in mortgage interest alone - and whether that reflected the fiscal conservatism that she says she favors, including having government budget more like families, Haley's campaign issued a statement Friday:
"Like most South Carolina families, Michael and I have watched our income levels change over the years," Haley's statement said. "We did what most families do during the hard times: reduce spending, live within our means, and plan for the future so as not to incur additional debt. While we didn't have the luxury of making $400,000 a year from hidden sources as a trial lawyer, it was those hard times that made us who we are today and that give me the passion I have to work for the families and businesses of this state."
Sheheen's release of his legislative e-mails also has increased the pressure on Haley to do the same.
Haley's e-mails have been an issue since May, when a blogger and former Haley consultant claimed - but provided no conclusive evidence - that he had an extramarital affair with the Lexington lawmaker in 2007. Haley denied the accusation, but also declined to waive an exemption that allows lawmakers to keep their state e-mail secret. Woodard, who frequently works for Republican candidates, recently challenged Haley to release her state e-mails in a speech to a Republican group. Haley's campaign says it is compiling the documents.
Greenville political consultant Chip Felkel said that while voters may not care much about which candidate released which documents, they become cynical when candidates don't keep their word.
"What people care about is an air of hypocrisy," Felkel said. "It's not so much about the issue of transparency."
Felkel and Woodard said Sheheen still faces an uphill fight in November. Haley holds a 14 percentage point lead, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll last week.
Haley also is trying to push back against Sheheen, arguing the Democrat is avoiding questions about national Democratic policies that are not popular in South Carolina.
"There's only one candidate in this race who isn't being transparent on the things that will actually play a role in how he might govern," said Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey. "He [Sheheen] has repeatedly failed to answer simple questions like where he stands on ObamaCare, the Arizona immigration law, or even ... whether he is pro-life or pro-choice."
Sheheen campaign manager Trave Robertson called those questions a distraction.
"Trying to change the subject is not being transparent," Robertson said. "Her campaign will say anything to try and divert attention from the facts."