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As the temperature rises, so does the rhetoric in the state superintendent of education primary.

Republican Molly Spearman is accusing Sally Atwater of ducking out of debating her one-on-one, and the third-place finisher is calling for Atwater to bow out, saying she is "woefully unprepared" and will lose to a candidate she believes is too liberal to call herself a Republican.

On the Democratic side, frontrunner Sheila Gallagher challenged Tom Thompson to a Lincoln-Douglas style debate over such issues as why he opposes her idea of legalizing marijuana as a tax source for schools, which Thompson is calling "reckless and short-sighted."

The Democrats accepted an offer from SC-ETV to debate on Thursday, according to ETV spokesman Tom Posey. It will be aired at 7 p.m.

The Republicans were offered a debate slot, but one hasn't been scheduled, Posey said.

ETV is still working to schedule a debate in the GOP lieutenant governor's race and set a deadline for the candidates to decide by Wednesday, he said.

Atwater was unavailable for comment Tuesday, said her campaign spokesman, Luke Byars. He said she has spoken at more than 40 Republican forums across the state during the primary season and Spearman didn't appear at most of them.

The two also participated in an ETV debate along with six other candidates in late May, he said.

"We've debated the issues with Molly time and time again," Byars said. "It's not going to change the fact that she's really not who she says she is. She's not a conservative."

Atwater, whose late husband was a national Republican strategist in the 1980's and early '1990's, took heat after a call-in interview broadcast last week on Greenville's WORD radio, in which conservative talk show host Russ Cassell tried to pin her down on her beliefs on sex education.

"I am for our health standards right now," Atwater said. "Once I get in there I will look and see other things, but I'm really going to stand by our health standards right now."

"What does that mean?" Cassell asked.

"Well, we have certain standards that our schools teach, and so that's what I'm going to do right now," she said.

Later in the interview, Atwater, a former special needs teacher, was asked about teaching of "evolution versus creationism." She said she stood by the state's science standards but wouldn't elaborate on what the science standards are.

"I'm not going to go any further on that right now," she said.

Cassell concluded that she was "clueless."

The Washington Post blogged a recording of the exchange under the heading, "Want to hear a really awkward interview with a politician?"

Spearman's campaign spokesman Ryan Lambert said, "We hope Ms. Atwater changes her mind (about not debating), but given her debate performance in the primary and her recent radio interview on WORD-FM, we can understand why she has made this political calculation."

The radio interview also prompted Sherri Few, who was the top vote-getter in Greenville and Pickens counties but placed third statewide, to call for Atwater to step down and let her take on Spearman.

"Sally's Wednesday interview with Russ Cassell on WORD Radio was an embarrassment, and it's clear to anyone who listens to her remarks that she is woefully unprepared for the job and will clearly lose the runoff to Spearman," Few said the next day.

Few, who spent most of her efforts during the primary attacking former Deputy Superintendent Meka Childs on the Common Core State Standards, said she had underestimated the name recognition factor that went to Atwater's advantage. Childs finished in the bottom half of the eight-way race.

Few told The Greenville News on Tuesday that she's given up on Atwater withdrawing and has decided she won't even vote in the runoff.

"What we're faced in this election on Tuesday in the runoff is one very liberal candidate and one that's incompetent," she said.

State GOP Chairman Matt Moore dismissed Few's challenge, saying the voters have spoken and the ballot is set.

"Sore losers shouldn't make themselves the center of attention," he said. "It damages our electoral process."

Spearman, who has cast Atwater as a Washington insider because of the years she lived there while her husband was advising presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said she's disappointed that Atwater won't debate her.

"I felt like it was important for the voters to see us side by side to help make their decision," she said.

Spearman said she changed her schedule Monday and drove five hours to appear at a forum in Spartanburg, she thought, with Atwater, only to find that one of the other candidates who was eliminated in the primary, Gary Burgess, was standing in for her.

Atwater instead spoke at a GOP event in Columbia on Monday night, her spokesman said.

As to the criticism that she's a Democrat at heart, Spearman, a former Democratic, then Republican, state legislator, said she switched parties in 1995 because she so often voted with the Republicans. She said she has voted in every GOP primary for nearly 30 years.

Spearman, who has been endorsed by former rivals Elizabeth Moffly and Don Jordan, noted that she sponsored a partial birth abortion bill and wrote the legislation that ended annual auto inspections as examples of her conservative credentials.

"I think it you look at my record, I've done some very bold things that are very Republican," she said.

For her part, Atwater hasn't directly attacked Spearman, although her ads point out that Atwater is "not a lobbyist for the education bureaucracy," an apparent jab at Spearman over her role as executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators.

Spearman said she and her association have been at odds with incumbent Superintendent Mick Zais over some issues, such as grading teachers on an A-F scale, and said her background is as a teacher and principal for 18 years, not a part of the education bureaucracy.

Zais, who had backed Childs, threw his support Tuesday to Atwater.

"Sally Atwater will bring to the state superintendent's office solid conservative values and will work tirelessly to expand school choice and educator accountability," he said. "I give her my strongest endorsement."

Atwater's campaign also announced the endorsement of 23 legislators, including Greenville delegation members Sen. Mike Fair and Reps. Eric Bedingfield, Dan Hamilton, Garry Smith and Mike Burns.

"Palmetto conservatives know there will be a very real choice to be made next Tuesday, June 24th," Atwater said in a statement. "They can vote to elect a lifelong Republican like myself with a vision to make schools safer, promote more school choice, provide more technology in the classroom, boost the number of reading coaches and simply eliminate Common Core."

The Democrats on the ballot next Tuesday aren't making as much noise, but their key point of contention is at least as controversial.

Gallagher, a longtime teacher from Florence who claimed a 10-point advantage over Thompson in a four-way race with 36 percent of the vote June 10, wants a referendum on legalizing marijuana, and to use tax revenues generated from the sale of marijuana to fund public schools.

"Tell us why it's better to put young people behind bars then in a classroom," she said in a statement challenging Thompson to debate the issue. "Tell us why legal marijuana is any different than state sponsored gambling. Tell us why you think the people don't deserve the right to vote and decide for themselves."

Thompson said he looks forward to the debate.

"There are so many other important issues to discuss beyond just encouraging our citizens to get high in order to help fund our schools," he said.

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