CONWAY -- State Sen. Vincent Sheheen was speaking to a group of business owners here this month when a man raised his hand and asked a question.
"How close was your last election?"
The question is part of a larger one Sheheen must answer leading up to the 2014 election and his rematch with Republican Nikki Haley.
If Sheheen lost the 2010 governor's race by 4.5 percentage points to a then little-known Lexington state representative who was fighting ethics questions, why should next year be any different?
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Sheheen's comments, plus his maneuvering during the latest legislative session, make his strategy clear: The Camden Democrat is placing all of his chips on running against Haley's record as governor.
"A fundamental part of this governor's race has to be about accountability and responsibility," Sheheen said. "What we haven't seen for a decade -- and certainly not in the last three years -- is accountability for the failures of state government."
In public appearances, Sheheen has hit the governor hard on the cyber-security breach at the Department of Revenue, in which hackers stole the personal information of 6.4 million consumers.
Lately, he has attacked Haley for how the Department of Health and Environmental Control has handled a tuberculosis outbreak in Greenwood County. Haley does not appoint the agency's director, but she appointed a majority of the agency's board that hired the director, a Haley protègè.
Sheheen said he considers DHEC an agency that reports to the governor, who should start an investigation and fire the director or top administrators if they are found responsible. "The governor must accept responsibility, and that hasn't happened," Sheheen said.
Haley's office said DHEC is providing updates on its investigation with the governor.
In the state Senate, Sheheen has introduced legislation designed both to outmaneuver Haley on those debacles and to soften the impact of any of her victories.
While Haley was setting up credit monitoring for those affected by the data breach and developing a statewide computer security plan, Sheheen introduced a joint resolution that would apologize formally to S.C. taxpayers for their personal information being stolen -- something he says Haley still has not done. Later, Sheheen set aside $400,000 in the state's budget to compensate people who could prove they lost money because of the data breach.
"Your tax returns, my tax returns, 3.7 million people had their tax information stolen from our Department of Revenue. We're the only state in the Union where that has happened," Sheheen told the audience at the Agape Senior Center in Conway this month. "Right now, there is a report saying what happened, and we can't read it. I can read it if I sign a confidentiality agreement, but I won't do it because I think you should know what happened to your information. We need better government than that."
While Haley made public education a focus of her State of the State address -- promising to start a "conversation" with teachers and parents in preparation for rolling out an education-reform proposal before the 2014 legislative session -- Sheheen was introducing a bill to expand 4-year-old kindergarten in South Carolina. While the bill did not pass, $26 million was added to the state budget to expand the 4-year-old kindergarten program into 17 low-income school districts, part of a key budget compromise that secured enough Democratic votes in the Senate to pass the budget.
Sheheen is unimpressed that Haley now wants to focus on education.
"A failure to come up with any education policy or proposals during the first three years of a governorship speaks volumes about the commitment to education, and coming up with proposals during an election year is not a good way to try to improve public education," Sheheen said. "Proposals that come up during an election year tend to be more about election and less about change."
HALEY CAMP FIRES BACK
Haley's camp says Sheheen is a political hack.
Sheheen's actions during the most recent legislative session were "focused on furthering his own political ambitions and doing so at the expense of the taxpayer," charges Tim Pearson, Haley's political adviser.
"Like many career politicians, Vince Sheheen has always been about what's best for him -- which explains why he voted repeatedly against ethics reform," Pearson said, referring to three procedural votes by Sheheen on May 23 that delayed Senate action on ethics reform, which ultimately did not pass.
Democrats bridle at any suggestion that Haley can claim ethics as a cause, adding that Sheheen has a long record of working for ethics reform.
CAN HE WIN?
The problem for Sheheen is that "all of these scandals" that the Democrat is counting on to help defeat Haley "have kind of peaked and moved on," said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University who has done extensive polling on Haley and Sheheen.
"The question is: Can he successfully combine those two things -- keeping in the forefront of the public's mind what he says are failures of the Haley administration combined with how he will do things differently and better ... (and) by the way, reminding people you are not a national Democrat, you are a South Carolina Democrat?" Huffmon said. "That's three balls in the air. If he can successfully juggle them, he can win."
As for that question about the 2010 election results, Sheheen laughed.
"It was extremely close," Sheheen replied to the questioner. "Haley got 51 percent of the vote. It was the second-closest election in America that year.