The 2014 Hilton Head Island mayor's race wasn't supposed to be this close.
Incumbent Drew Laughlin, a Town Council member since 2003, had the connections and name recognition to steamroll the field.
But Planning Commission chairman David Bennett, a first-time candidate, stocked his campaign team with veteran Hilton Head politicos and forced a runoff.
Now Laughlin, 62, is working to rebrand himself with his office at stake in Tuesday's nonpartisan runoff.
The mayor has set aside his above-the-fray attitude in favor of more aggressive campaign tactics. He attacked Bennett's policies, while his supporters questioned the challenger's Planning Commission voting record.
He also unveiled a new moniker: Meet Drew Laughlin, "The Proven Conservative."
"Do you want big government, big spending, more taxes; or do you want a more limited government approach that works with the private sector and keeps spending and taxes down?" the mayor asked during an interview Wednesday at his law office.
Bennett, 48, says Laughlin has mischaracterized his platform. He says his policies are not pro-government but rather "proactive."
He doubled down on his claim that Hilton Head residents are tired of the status quo. Bennett collected 41 percent of the vote last week, while Laughlin had 42. Three candidates split the rest.
The mayor's ads "are a way of undermining the will of the public," Bennett said. "I don't care how you slice it, almost 60 percent of voters last week said they don't like how things are being done."
REDEVELOPING THE ISLAND
The role the town should play in redeveloping the island's outdated properties has become the central issue.
Bennett, an affordable-housing developer, believes the town should buy land to control the island's future. He wants to develop a large concert venue, focus more on the Mitchelville historic site and provide sewer systems and paved roads for every resident.
Laughlin's response: "Where are you going to get the money?"
The incumbent says those projects would cost millions and likely require raising taxes.
Laughlin says buying land and telling developers what to build would dry up private investment. He says his administration has seen $291 million in reinvestment come to the island without such tactics.
"If I'm a developer and I'm going to invest millions of dollars on my property, I want it to be the thing I think is going to work, not the thing some collective of elected officials thinks is going to work," he said.
He referenced a famous Ronald Reagan quip: What are the nine most terrifying words in the English language?
"I'm from the government, and I'm here to help," Laughlin said.
Bennett dismisses the notion that taxes would need to be raised for his projects.
He says the town would set aside land for the concert venue; a private group would raise the cash.
For Mitchelville, the town would provide seed money -- he doesn't know how much -- and rely on matching grants and private donors.
The town would pay for sewer systems and paved roads. The money would come from funds earmarked for bike paths and park additions.
He said it frustrated him that the town spent substantially more money on bike trails than sewer service.
"I don't feel right about spending the majority of the budget on wants for one segment of our population while one segment of our population hasn't gotten their needs."
BENNETT'S VOTING RECORD, ATTENDANCE
Two Laughlin supporters questioned this week whether Bennett was forthcoming in his quest for office.
George Williams, a 13-year Town Council veteran who is retiring next month, sent an email to Laughlin's followers that railed against Bennett.
Williams said Bennett was disingenuous in criticizing town projects that the candidate voted for while on the Planning Commission, citing Shelter Cove Towne Centre and the University of South Carolina Beaufort campus, among others.
Bennett acknowledged that he voted for Shelter Cove's new shopping center in 2012. He said he did so because the 90,000-square-foot Kroger was smaller than the 280,000-square-foot Kroger the developers could have built. He also said town staff didn't make the development agreement available to the Planning Commission before his vote.
He opposed a proposal last month to build a larger apartment complex at Shelter Cove. He said the complex doesn't fit the Broad Creek aesthetic.
As for a planned USCB campus at Office Park Road, Bennett voted to put the project on the town's priorities list. He later decried the $22.5 million cost to the town; USCB will kick in about $2.5 million.
Williams said Bennett should have known the cost before voting for it.
Bennett said the project was not presented in detail; he's never seen site plans or traffic studies.
He said he likes the concept of a university on Hilton Head but doesn't know how the town estimated the costs. It plans to pay for the campus using revenue from a special tax district.
"It seems to me an equitable business deal would have two sides paying the same amount," Bennett said.
Another Laughlin supporter, Hilton Head attorney Chester Williams, wrote a letter to The Island Packet that asked why Bennett didn't attend two recent council meetings where decisions about Shelter Cove and Coligny were made.
"If Bennett could not or would not take the time to attend the last two council meetings, how can he be expected to devote the time and effort to being mayor for the next four years?" Williams wrote.
Bennett said he couldn't go to the Coligny meeting.
As for Shelter Cove: "Everybody knows where I stand on that. Does anyone honestly think as candidate for mayor I would have more credence paid to me if I went and spoke? -- 'Thanks for your time, now sit down.'"
He said he's been to a handful of council meetings in the past six months.
"I don't think it would be a problem," he added. "I had never been to a Planning Commission meeting before I joined.
"I was born with a good brain and a good business sense. I'm going to be able to figure out what's necessary to figure out."
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.