By Gina Smith
Democrat Vincent Sheheen knows the latest polls show him trailing Republican Nikki Haley in the race to be governor.
But he thinks the actual spread is only about five points with Haley garnering support from about 45 percent of likely voters and he around 40 percent.
Only one recent poll has shown either has hit 50 percent or higher. (A poll released Friday put Haley at 51 percent, but that's still within the poll's margin of error.)
And that's giving Sheheen, a Kershaw County senator, the oomph to plow through these final days of his gubernatorial campaign, splitting his time among political rallies, campaign forums, fish fries, oyster roasts and fundraising stops -- with late night stops at Wendy's for suppers.
"The trend is a significant tightening of this race," said Sheheen, 39, between sips of a Frosty on Friday. "We can win."
For the past year a half, the Camden attorney and married father of three boys has been on the trail nearly nonstop.
These waning campaign days are different from the early ones, during which Sheheen, largely unknown outside his senate district, gave speech after speech about his Camden roots. His great-grandfather, a Lebanese immigrant, came to the little town 115 years ago. Today, the Sheheen name carries much weight in political circles because of his uncle, Bob Sheheen, a former speaker of the S.C. House of Representatives, and dad, Fred Sheheen, the former head of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education and a player in the state's Democratic scene.
During these final days, more media are paying attention to Sheheen as he travels the state.
He's also getting choosier about his stops, spending more time in the Upstate -- Republican-leaning turf where he's hoping to peel away moderate and independent voters from Haley.
"I'm not as well known up there. And there are lots of voters up there who are very dissatisfied with the way government has been running, particularly business people" Sheheen said. "I've gotten a really warm reception whenever I go there."
And lastly, the end to his money-raising days is in sight. His final fundraising event is scheduled for Thursday.
The recession has meant all candidates are spending a more-than-usual time working the phone, trolling for money.
Sheheen and Haley have each raised more than $3.5 million in total. But Haley leads in the amount of cash on hand with more than $700,000, compared with Sheheen's nearly $535,000.
Speculation is running high Sheheen is lining up some last-minute funds from the Democratic Governors Association for a blanketing of the state with last-minute ads.
Sheheen won't comment on the rumor.
Haley has used donations from the Republican Governors Association for a TV ad that links Sheheen to President Barack Obama.
On the trail, prospective voters rarely ask him about Obama or federal issues, said Sheheen, whose out-of-state donations equal 6 percent of his most recent quarterly financials.
"They want to talk about South Carolina issues," he said. "And finally having a governor we can trust."
The rhetoric of the last days
It's the kind of event that could only happen in those last few days of the campaign season.
About 75 sat at long tables in the ballroom in a Myrtle Beach hotel, hoping to hear Sheheen and Haley answer questions about the I-73 project, a 20-year construction dream that, if realized, could be a major economic development engine for beach tourism and transportation while providing an improved route during hurricane evacuations.
Both candidates have said they're strong supporters of the plan and will work to make the new road a reality.
Sheheen was at Friday's event.
Haley was not.
"If she had had more notice, I'm sure she would have been here," said Rep. Thad Viers, R-Horry, who Haley sent in her place because she had a previous campaign engagement in Charleston.
Sheheen, who's grown increasingly critical of Haley in recent weeks, pounced.
"Remember who showed up today," Sheheen said from the podium, wagging a finger. "That's what my mama always told me. That's how you know who loves you."
And one Democratic legislator present had copies of Haley's public schedule from when she was first invited to the event a week ago, showing she had a free Friday afternoon.
Terri Rhodes, wife of Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes, said Haley's absence is proof she's not fit for the job of governor.
"This (I-73) is the number one project in South Carolina. She is a candidate who says this issue matters to her, but she doesn't bother to show up," said Rhodes who, along with her husband, is supporting Sheheen although they're Republicans. "If anyone along the I-73 corridor votes for her, they'll get nothing because, just like today, she'll do nothing."
Others in attendance, including Johnnie Bellamy, a Haley supporter and president of the Myrtle Beach Republican Women, was more forgiving.
Candidates get busy and cannot be everywhere at once," Bellamy said.
And as for Sheheen, "this is the first time I've seen him in person," she said. "I wasn't impressed. He had no ideas. He just responded to the ideas Thad mentioned."
Haley's campaign jumped into the Friday showdown too.
"Trailing badly in the polls, liberal trial lawyer Vince Sheheen pulled another desperate stunt today," said a Haley campaign spokesperson of the event.
Haley's camp has jumped on Sheheen, whose law firm has represented clients who sued the state, and his firm has been paid by the state to represent individuals.
Sheheen has fired back that Haley is an untrustworthy accountant whose paid her taxes late and misled people about why she left a fundraising job with the Lexington Medical Center Foundation.
Sheheen found a friendlier crowd in Columbia during Friday's S.C. Conference of Black Mayors, where the smell of coffee and pastries wafted through a second-story ballroom.
But Kevin Johnson, mayor of Manning, was not distracted by the early morning treats.
He was thinking -- and talking -- about jobs.
The closing of two industries in his little town have helped propelled Clarendon County's unemployment to nearly 15 percent, four percentage points above the state's rate.
Johnson thinks Sheheen can fix it.
"Nowadays, things are so partisan. He's willing to work with anyone on either side of the aisle to fix our state's problems and bring jobs here," said Johnson who's known Sheheen for about 10 years and has worked with him previously in a group to rehabilitate housing and upgrade infrastructure.
"I know he works well with others," he said. "I've seen him do it."