The Republican nominee in South Carolina's hard-fought U.S. Senate race apologized yesterday for saying gays and unmarried mothers should not teach in public schools, but he stopped short of retracting the statements.

Jim DeMint said he regretted the comments, made in a recent debate, because they distracted voters from "real issues" such as jobs and national security. Repeatedly asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" whether gays and single mothers should qualify as teachers, DeMint said local school boards should decide.

His Democratic opponent, Inez Tenenbaum, said on the same program that she disagrees with John F. Kerry's characterization of the Iraq conflict as "the wrong war" but that she will vote for her party's presidential nominee Nov. 2.

DeMint, a three-term U.S. House member, and Tenenbaum, South Carolina's superintendent of education, are battling to succeed retiring Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C). Seated side by side in NBC News's Washington studio yesterday, they clashed on taxes, abortion and education in pointed questioning by moderator Tim Russert.

Polls generally show DeMint leading Tenenbaum. But she has been hammering his support of a bill to create a 23 percent national sales tax while eliminating the Internal Revenue Service, federal income tax and estate tax. Tenenbaum said the proposal would increase net taxes on most South Carolinians, especially low- and middle-income earners.

DeMint said he would provide waivers or rebates "to hold the poor harmless." His chief goal, he said, "will be not only to cut taxes, but to get rid of the IRS, to get rid of the tax code and replace it with something that's fair and simple. . . . I could not support any bill that raised the taxes on any American."

Under DeMint's plan, Tenenbaum said, "people would have to pay 23 percent on virtually everything they buy: clothing, food, prescription drugs, new cars, new houses, trips to the doctor, college room and board, tax on gasoline, movie tickets. . . . He will raise taxes on 95 percent" of the state's residents.

Regarding abortion, DeMint said he would outlaw the procedure under all circumstances, including rape and incest. He declined to say whether the mother, father or doctor should be prosecuted if an abortion is performed. "We'll just have to decide that," he said.

Tenenbaum said she supports a woman's "constitutional right to have a safe and legal abortion." She said she would ban a procedure that critics call "partial birth" abortion so long as exemptions are made for the mother's life or health. Asked by Russert if she believes life begins at conception, Tenenbaum replied: "It depends on, are you talking ensoulment? Are you talking about physical life? . . . I can't answer that scientifically."

Russert aired a recent debate clip in which DeMint said, "If a person is a practicing homosexual, they should not be teaching in our schools." DeMint later said he felt the same "if a single woman who is pregnant and living with her boyfriend should be hired to teach my third-grade children."

DeMint apologized yesterday for the remarks because they "distracted from the real debate." He repeatedly declined to address the remarks' substance, saying local school boards should decide who teaches.

DeMint criticized Tenenbaum's education record, saying South Carolina ranks "dead last" in SAT scores and has the nation's "worst graduation rate."

Tenenbaum said graduation rates are better than DeMint contends. During her six-year term, she said, SAT scores "went up for five years in a row, sometimes dramatically." The scores dropped last year, she said, predicting "they'll go back up."

South Carolina ranks 49th in the nation with an average SAT score of 986; the District had the lowest overall score at 965.

As for Iraq, Tenenbaum said, "We needed to remove Saddam Hussein. . . . He had had weapons of mass destruction that he used against the Kurds and the Iranians." Reminded of Kerry's criticisms of the war, she said, "I have to respectfully disagree."

Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is facing off against Inez Tenenbaum, state education superintendent, to succeed Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C).