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Sheheen chasing Haley

Republican gubernatorial nominee Nikki Haley entered the general election campaign in June holding a double-digit lead over Democratic rival Vincent Sheheen. With a month to go until Election Day, the race has changed little: Haley maintains her front-runner status and enjoys a political tailwind that benefits Republicans nationwide.

The race is not over, political analysts say. But Sheheen, a state senator from Camden, urgently needs an issue to catch fire with voters - and quick - to have a shot at closing the gap with Haley, a state representative from Lexington.

"Vincent has an Everest-like climb and no oxygen," said Trey Walker, who managed Attorney General Henry McMaster's GOP primary campaign against Haley and others.

Sheheen has turned up the criticism of Haley lately in an effort to capitalize on her shortcomings - including chastising the Republican -- an accountant by profession -- before a state accountants group for paying her income and property taxes late.

Haley has responded, first with an ad branding Sheheen as a trial lawyer and then, on Friday, with a new ad that turns attention back to issues.

"We're getting huge, positive responses at the grass-roots level and with our fundraising," Haley campaign manager Tim Pearson said in a statement. "Our focus is not on Vincent's challenges but on our opportunities to continue to connect with the people and small businesses of this state."

Haley has benefited from national unrest with congressional and White House policies, dissatisfaction that has Republicans expecting big political gains this fall.

But Pearson said he expects Sheheen to direct more criticism toward Haley prior to Election Day on Nov. 2.

Sheheen says he will not back down from challenging Haley's rhetoric and record.

"I do think it's important to compare the two candidates," Sheheen said, comparing his record of pushing for government reforms to Haley's. "I actually have a record of doing these things and Rep. Haley doesn't."

Sheheen says Democratic polling shows the race much closer than the 17-percentage-point margin found by a recent poll by Rasmussen Reports, a GOP-leaning firm. Haley's lead - if Rasmussen is right - is larger than the one held by outgoing Republican Gov. Mark Sanford over Democratic opponent Tommy Moore at the same point in Sanford's 2006 re-election campaign. Polls then showed Sanford with a four-percentage-point lead; Sanford won by 10 percentage points.

Phil Noble, founder of the S.C. New Democrats, said Republicans always will have a numbers advantage in voters in South Carolina unless Democrats can change the conversation.

"To date, we haven't changed the game," Noble said. "Is it impossible to move 17 percent in [31] days? No, absolutely not."

A month, Noble added, "is an eternity in politics."

Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson said the campaign has been low-key to date, essentially unchanged since June. Haley's perceived lead is not too much to overcome, she said, but doing so will require finding an effective issue, something three Republican primary opponents and Sheheen thus far have failed to identify.

"You can turn public opinion pretty quickly with the right information," Vinson said.

One opportunity will come when the two candidates debate.

The candidates have agreed to three debates, the first on Oct. 19 in Spartanburg. Vinson said debates sometimes can have a surprising impact on a race.

One problem for Sheheen is that the candidates do not have the same cash resources to sway minds as in past years, former Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson said. Spending in this year's race for governor has been less than any election since 1994.

But voters are paying attention, Dawson said, and they do not like what they are seeing.

"It's a wave and a mood of angry voters," Dawson said. "They are as aware of the issues as I've seen in eight or nine years."