Insiders revisit S.C. gubernatorial race

Campaign managers offer post-game perspective

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For students learning the ins and outs of elections, the 2010 gubernatorial race between then-Rep. Nikki Haley and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen included a lot of teachable moments. For instance, they've learned what you should and shouldn't send to Will Folks in a text message.

Communication students at the College of Charleston were given a unique opportunity recently to hear from both sides with an unusual post-mortem from Haley campaign manager Tim Pearson and Sheheen campaign manager Trav Robertson. I don't know if it was an effort to play to the local crowd, but both men talked up Charleston's role in boosting their chances in primary challenges against popular statewide elected officials.

For the Sheheen campaign, it was the endorsement of Joe Riley. The mayor's wife is from Sheheen's hometown of Camden, so the endorsement wasn't very surprising, but Robertson said it provided some much-needed support where it counts. "It lent credibility," he said.

In Haley's case, Charleston helped with an early debate at Memminger Auditorium. "When you're fourth out of four, debates are a great opportunity," Pearson said. In this case, it gave Haley a chance to distance herself from the other candidates on issues like federal stimulus spending.

As endorsements go, Sarah Palin offered some high-profile support that received a lot of credit for Haley's come-from-behind success. But Pearson noted support was already growing for his candidate and there was an earlier nod that provided clout: 2012 presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

Republican consultant Chris Allen said Haley came across as an outsider. According to Pearson, that was the point. He said McMaster was the "sure thing, in the event there was no alternative." So the real challenge was who would be the alternative. "We always thought it was [Rep. Gresham] Barrett or Nikki," Pearson said. The feather in her cap? According to Pearson, "The governor has an unteachable ability to connect with people."

Democrat Phil Noble noted that the state is always a challenge for Democrats. "Vincent tried to change the game," he said. "It's really, really, really hard." Robertson said a key mistake was failing to anticipate the amount of frustration at Washington. "The congressional races drove turnout," he said. Looking at the broader whooping South Carolina Democrats received, Robertson said Democrats need to do a better job pitching their message to moderates, as well as young and first-time voters

Of course, the 2010 election isn't worth talking about without looking at the moment that changed the game: former Haley consultant Will Folks' public claim last April that he'd had a sexual relationship with the candidate. He claimed reporters were ready to pounce on the story. Haley denied the affair. Folks released phone records that revealed hours-long late-night conversations between he and Haley, along with texted conversations he had with Pearson that showed the pair were coordinating a response to the story in the weeks before Folks decided to go it alone.

The whole drama was clearly not something that Pearson wanted to revisit, saying "It has been hashed and rehashed." But Noble wouldn't let him off the hook so quickly, noting the texts and the many positive messages Folks had posted about Haley over the previous few years. "Clearly, he was for Nikki," Noble said. Pearson shot back, "Clearly, he was not."

Pearson's beef doesn't appear to be with Folks, the second accuser, Larry Marchant, or fellow Republicans who gave mileage to the salacious claims. Instead, he has saved his contempt for the news outlets that reported the story. "The media is a beast. An uncontrollable beast," he said. "It demands accountability of others and has none itself."

Actually, it's the voters that demand accountability of their candidates, not the media. If anything gave this story legs, it was the persistent dodging and evading from Haley's handlers throughout the campaign. We were all tripping over ourselves to give the candidate and Pearson a chance to explain the text messages and we received nothing. And, unlike a candidate with four years in office, we're held accountable every time we print an issue or post an item online.

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