COLUMBIA, S.C. — The three Democrats currently saying they are running for governor showed at their first debate they won’t be afraid to criticize one another.

The likely front-runner, Rep. James Smith from Columbia, made a big promise Friday night at the Palmetto State Progressive Summit, saying he can get back the roughly $2 billion ratepayers at two South Carolina utilities paid for a pair of nuclear plants abandoned last summer before they were finished.

“I believe I can return every cent to every South Carolinian that was taken, and I’m going to get that done,” Smith said.

Charleston businessman Phil Noble said that was an empty promise because Smith took donations from SCANA Corp., although Smith said it was only about $2,000 over 22 years.

Noble said he is willing to take radical steps to solve nagging problems, like firing a third of teachers to improve education. “We have an adult problem in education, we don’t have a kid problem, and we’re failing our kids,” Noble said.

Both Scott and the third candidate, Florence attorney Marguerite Willis, thought that proposal was absurd.

Willis called herself a practical problem solver. She says politicians like Smith support equal pay for women, but don’t do anything to make it happen.

“What’s he been doing? He’s been offering it every year and can’t get it done. I’ll get it done because women of South Carolina are going to demand it get done,” Willis said.

A Democrat has not won the race for South Carolina’s governor since 1998. At least four Republicans are running, including current Gov. Henry McMaster.