In dueling campaign appearances last week at River Hills Country Club, U.S. Rep. John Spratt called his Republican challenger "another Mark Sanford," while Mick Mulvaney faulted Spratt for selling out constituents in favor of the national Democratic agenda.
The comments offered a glimpse at how the candidates' messages are evolving as the Labor Day milestone approaches.
Speaking Friday at a Republican women's luncheon, Mulvaney said he has encountered anger in every corner of the 5th Congressional District over health care reform and government spending.
The state senator from Indian Land acknowledged many voters still know little about him.
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"Let's be honest with each other," he said "They're not voting for Mick Mulvaney yet. They're voting against John Spratt."
Two days earlier in the same place, Spratt said Mulvaney's anti-government views match those of Republican Gov. Mark Sanford.
"One Sanford in Columbia is enough," Spratt told the Lake Wylie audience. "We don't need another one in Washington, D.C."
To make the point, Spratt called attention to Mulvaney's votes against funding for children's health insurance, early childhood education and new school buses.
Mulvaney is "right - hard right" in his views, Spratt said, adding "it's hard to find one positive achievement" in his voting record.
Faced with a tough climate for Democratic incumbents, Spratt is trying convince voters the Republican alternative is worse, said Danielle Vinson, a political scientist at Furman University.
Spratt "seems to be reminding voters - many of whom would prefer smaller government and less spending - that there are some programs that people like and that are worth the money," Vinson said.
"Child health care is a good example of that. It's a program that is popular with people, generally."
Mulvaney cites widespread anger
Recalling visits to towns such as Bishopville, Cheraw and Lugoff, Mulvaney said voters share a common frustration over Spratt's support for the national Democratic agenda.
"They always say, 'I used to be for John Spratt, but not anymore,'" he said. "Or, 'I've never been in politics before, but this year is different.'"
Mulvaney criticized Spratt for failing to introduce a budget this year as chairman of the House Budget Committee. Democratic leaders opted instead to rely on a patchwork of other measures that Spratt says amount to the functional equivalent of a budget.
"I keep telling people, 'That's OK, we'll just pay our taxes next year with the functional equivalent of money,'" Mulvaney said.
Mulvaney said his votes in the Legislature put him in line with Republicans opposed to increased government spending. Asked about the Sanford comparison, Mulvaney brought up other names.
"If you look at good, solid conservatives, Jim DeMint, Ralph (Norman, a state representative from Rock Hill), me, you're getting some consistency, I would hope," Mulvaney said. "I'm happy that he's talking about my voting record."
The race has gained national prominence, with reporters in town this week from CSPAN, The Los Angeles Times, Roll Call and Bloomberg News.
The Mulvaney campaign said its latest polling shows the contest tied at 46 percent. Spratt's campaign acknowledged a close race, but said the trends are no different than other competitive elections around the nation.