(AP) - The Republican gubernatorial race that has turned nasty over the last few weeks was overshadowing all others Tuesday as South Carolina voters went to the polls to whittle down a field of seven candidates for governor and set up the November race for a U.S. Senate seat.
The primary also will be pivotal for three congressional elections. Four other statewide offices -- state schools chief, state attorney general, treasurer and comptroller general -- are also on ballots.
But the race that has grabbed the spotlight is the Republican gubernatorial primary. State Rep. Nikki Haley, who was dogged the last two weeks by claims that she had trysts with two separate men, vies to become the first woman GOP nominee for governor and the first Indian-American with a serious shot at the state's top elected office.
Haley, with strong backing from tea party activists saw her popularity soar last month with an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. And she's denied and weathered unsubstantiated allegations from the two men claiming physical relationships with the married mother of two.
Haley faces U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and state Attorney General Henry McMaster in the GOP contest.
Judy Hamilton, a 59-year-old administrative assistant from Columbia, said she wasn't swayed by the allegations against the three-term lawmaker and voted for Haley.
"I don't believe very many politicians or very many people on the political scene, so I just had to vote my conscience and my prayers," Hamilton said.
Sherry Burton, 48, cast her vote for Barrett, saying she likes his honesty.
"I think that's really one thing we need to return to, is just taking really hard looks at all the candidates at all levels of government," said Burton, a manufacturing scheduler who voted in a Columbia suburb.
The Democratic primary for governor is a contest between state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden, state Education Superintendent Jim Rex and state Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston.
They are looking to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Mark Sanford who rocked the state last summer when he admitted to secretly skipping out of the country to rendezvous with an Argentine woman he later called his soul mate. It ruined his marriage and political future.
Voters along the coast and South Carolina's border with Georgia will decide contenders for two open U.S. House seats while GOP U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis is in a tough, five-way fight to keep his seat along the North Carolina state line.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. If absentee voting is any indication, turnout should run ahead of 2006 levels.
Down the ballot, the race for treasurer has been a slugfest by GOP challenger Curtis Loftis. The pest control company owner has spent heavily on ads calling Republican Treasurer Converse Chellis a liar and saying he drives a pricey SUV at taxpayer expense. No Democrat filed for the office, so the winner is likely the state's next treasurer.
In federal office races, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint has a primary challenger Susan McDonald Gaddy. DeMint, who has fashioned himself as Republican hard-liner, has spent little on a contest he's expected to easily win. In the Democratic primary, former legislator and judge Vic Rawl of Charleston faces Alvin Greene, an unemployed military veteran from Manning.
In the crowded primaries for U.S. House seats:
-- South Carolina's coastal 1st District features a nine-way GOP contest that includes Paul Thurmond, son of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond; Carroll Campbell III, son of the late Gov. Carroll Campbell and state Rep. Tim Scott, the first black Republican elected to the South Carolina General Assembly since Reconstruction. If Scott wins the primary and election to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, he would be the first black GOP congressman from the state in more than a century.
-- Barrett's departure to run for governor brought out six Republicans and two Democrats in primaries for the 3rd District, which covers the northwestern part of the state along the Georgia and North Carolina border.
-- Republican Inglis is fighting to keep his 4th District seat. He held the seat for three terms before giving it up on a term limit pledge. He won it again in 2003 and has weathered challenges in the three terms since. But he's riled his party's most conservative voters with stances at times at odds with the former Bush administration and lately for supporting its 2008 efforts to bailout Wall Street and banks.