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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The Republicans vying to become South Carolina’s next governor have given voters their first real-time opportunity to compare their positions on the state’s multi-billion dollar nuclear plant debacle and issues such as abortion and streamlining government.

The four challengers seeking to unseat Gov. Henry McMaster have met in previous forums, but Wednesday night’s gathering at Clemson University was the first time McMaster joined them as he seeks election to his first full term.

McMaster opened the evening by reminding voters of his connection to President Donald Trump, who has endorsed him in this race and appeared at a fundraiser for him last year.

“He’s helping me, and I appreciate it,” McMaster said. “He and I see things a lot alike.”

McMaster was the first statewide elected official to endorse Trump’s candidacy in early 2016, before he moved up from lieutenant governor when Gov. Nikki Haley became Trump’s U.N. Ambassador.

Former state public health chief Catherine Templeton also reminded voters of her relationship with Trump, saying the transition team called her “a triple threat” while vetting her for a possible administration slot, which she turned down to run for governor.

Candidates first faced off on how to handle the multi-billion dollar failure of the V.C. Summer nuclear reactor project, a debacle for which hundreds of thousands of the state’s utility customers have together been billed more than $2 billion. State and federal authorities are probing the failure, and lawmakers are trying to hash out legislative fixes.

Templeton pledged to get ratepayers’ money back. Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant blamed the failure on “government involvement” and suggested more consumer choices for power are needed. Greenville businessman John Warren suggested hiring an investment bank to conduct a forensic audit “to know where the money went.”

Warren also would remove the utilities’ board members, which McMaster called a good idea “if you want to ruin a company.”

As for infrastructure spending priorities, former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill called for more auditing to track how public money is being spent, particularly at the state Department of Transportation: “There needs to be transparency and let the public know exactly what’s going on.” Warren proposed a five-year strategic plan addressing all of the state’s roads and bridges.

Hours before the debate, McMaster called for an independent review of state records about a Charleston-area bridge causing major traffic problems. Inspectors found a snapped support cable and partially closed it while repairs are made.

The liveliest exchange came as the Republicans challenged each other on abortion. Bryant said an executive order McMaster signed last year wasn’t tough enough on “evil organizations like Planned Parenthood,” and he promoted his own credentials as being “part of every pro-life piece of legislation that’s gotten through the General Assembly.”

McMaster’s order directs state agencies not to allocate state and federal money to health care providers affiliated in any way with abortion clinics, and also directs the state’s Medicaid agency to seek federal permission to exclude abortion clinics from its Medicaid provider network. Calling Planned Parenthood “an abomination,” McMaster said the organization needs to be ousted from the state.

As the only woman in the debate, Templeton referred to the twins she carried. “As a mother with a huge heart, not as a candidate for governor, I will protect the lives of children all over this state,” she said.

With less than three weeks to go until the June 12 primaries, the three Democrats vying for their party’s nomination face off at Clemson on Thursday night. The parties have another set of back-to-back debates at the University of South Carolina on June 4 and 5.


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