Call it shame by association.
On Monday night, during the South Carolina gubernatorial debate, when Republican Nikki Haley faced off against Democrat Vincent Sheheen, both candidates tried to tar the other by pointing out the political company they’ve kept.
Sheheen worked to attach Haley to the state's current governor, Mark Sanford, famous for making “hiking the Appalachian Trail” a metaphor for sexual indiscretion in 2009, when he disappeared from South Carolina, only to return with a rambling tale about his Argentine mistress.
Haley, for her part, hoped to link Sheheen to President Barack Obama and his big-government ways, highlighting her opponent's support of the president’s economic agenda and health-care reform.
Sheheen, 39, is a legislator and lawyer, who would face a Republican general assembly, if elected, and whose state party has lately been whining that national Democrats aren't showing enough faith in his chances of success.
Haley, 38, was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa and, unlike Sheheen, has gotten a lot of love from her party—the GOP sees her as a candidate who fits comfortably in the Sarah Palin/Tea Party wing of the party while at the same time helping to extend the cast of potential Republican leaders beyond the white, male variety.
During the debate, however, it was not their CVs or personal backgrounds that were at issue. Rather, two figures not at the debate table proved the most important targets of attack.
"He was a cheerleader for President Obama on taking the stimulus," Haley said.
“She is Mark Sanford’s biggest supporter,” Sheheen said.
After an hour-long debate, the candidates appeared at a draw, neither side having scored the match-making rhetorical and political points—although Shehen appeared the most consistent, attacking Haley's honesty on at least 12 occasions.
“We have got to get to telling truth,” Sheheen said.
“I speak the truth, and I will speak it about you and speak it about myself,” he added.
“I will always tell you truth,” Sheheen said.
“Government should not be all things to all people,” Haley said in explaining her ideological approach.
It has been an unfailing line of attack from the Democrat who has previously charged that Haley interfered with an audit of her family business. Haley has countered by claiming that Sheheen failed to act in stopping a state agency from going bankrupt while in the legislature.
Facing daunting budget shortfalls, Haley suggested that solutions to funding troubles rested in the private sector. She called on "faith-based organizations" to shore up problems in South Carolina's failing education system. She said that corporate sponsorship could pay to keep libraries open.
"Government should not be all things to all people," Haley said in explaining her ideological approach.
Despite the accusations of dishonesty, both candidates found common cause in decrying the state of South Carolina's schools, wasteful bureaucrats, and their desire to draw more business to the state—the meat and potatoes of any campaign season.
Proving the newly vogue truism that all politics is national, Haley said she would stand against Washington, saying, “the federal government is never the answer to our economic problems.”
Sheheen doubled-down on his straight-talking ways, still delivering the jabs at Sanford: "I'm tired of leaders who misspeak. I'm tired of having a misspeaker who is my governor."
The candidates will meet for a final debate Tuesday evening.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.