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S. Carolina Campaign Takes a Hard Right

Times Staff Writer

Kathy Harding was well on the way to voting for the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, an anti-abortion, pro-gun businessman named Jim DeMint, when a couple of things began to nag at her.

One was DeMint’s support for a bill that would have replaced the federal income tax with a 23% sales tax. Harding is the one who pays the grocery bill each week, and she has one word for the plan: “Expensive.”

Then DeMint said he believed no homosexual should be allowed to teach in the public schools. Questioned on his comments two days later, DeMint said he would also bar unwed mothers from teaching.

Later, DeMint backed off both positions, explaining in an apology that he “answered that question as a dad, with my heart.” But he had already lost Harding, a good Republican who watches Fox News every morning.

“That bothered me,” Harding said. “I’m not saying I condone the lifestyle, but I think they have to take the candidate for the teaching position and look at their credentials.”

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To the surprise of many who expected DeMint to cruise to victory in this deeply conservative state, the race for Democrat Ernest “Fritz” Hollings’ seat has become a competitive one. The most recent independent polling, in late September, showed DeMint ahead by 12 percentage points, but since then, his own staffers acknowledged, a wave of criticisms has cut into his lead.

DeMint, 53, a three-term congressman, is running against Inez Tenenbaum, a popular two-term superintendent of education whose greatest obstacle, observers said, was the “D” behind her name. But while Tenenbaum, 53, has been cautious, taking pains to portray herself as more conservative than the national ticket, DeMint has taken risky positions on tax reform, trade and social issues, an approach more reminiscent of Newt Gingrich than Karl Rove.

“It’s almost a test of how extreme the state is willing to go to elect a Republican,” said Robert Botsch, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina in Aiken. “A lot of the things he said, to me, just flunk the middle-class etiquette test.”

For both parties, Hollings’ seat would be a crucial win. With five Democratic senators retiring in the region, Republicans hope to increase their two-vote majority in the Senate. Stakes may be even higher for Democrats, who risk losing their foothold in the region.

“There’s a sense among old-time Democrats that they are about to lose everything,” said Neal Thigpen, a professor of political science at Francis Marion University. “They need to win one.”

The issues before the state are crystal clear in Clinton, a city of 8,000 that has lost 1,500 jobs in the last four years as the textile industry moved overseas. In Clinton’s pretty downtown, beside a water tower and a railroad crossing, shop owners wait all day for customers, but few arrive; at Tyler’s Omnifarious Photo Services, 62-year-old Fred Tyler describes his business, grimly, as “almost nonexistent.”

“It hit hard, and we’re just finally standing up, dusting ourselves off, and saying, ‘Whoo, what a punch,’ ” said Ashton Barrington, 53, owner of Elaine’s Gift Shop.

Hoping to win these voters, DeMint and Tenenbaum have staked out starkly different positions on trade.

In the House, DeMint defined himself as an iconoclast on trade issues, supporting free trade with China and voting to give the president fast-track authority over trade agreements -- stances that infuriated textile interests in South Carolina.

Tenenbaum has promised to block any new trade agreements and “use diplomatic muscle” to crack down on Chinese violations.

But it is one of DeMint’s tax reform proposals that has grabbed the most attention here, thanks to Tenenbaum’s onslaught of television advertisements. In 2003, DeMint was one of 120 members of the House to co-sponsor the Fair Tax Act, which would have abolished the Internal Revenue Service, eliminated the federal income tax and replaced it with a 23% sales tax.

Geoff Embler, DeMint’s spokesman, said the bill was only one of 11 different tax reform proposals DeMint sponsored, and “he’s never said this is the best way to go.”

Nevertheless, the advertising campaigns have influenced voters. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent more than $3 million on ads in South Carolina. The attacks came as a surprise to DeMint, who won a series of low-key House races by projecting a thoughtful, “nice-guy image,” said David Woodard, who advised DeMint in his 1998 congressional campaign.

“I think he’s very, very surprised at the aggressiveness,” said Woodard, who now teaches political science at Clemson University. “The picture of her has been this nice little schoolmarm, and it’s not been like that. It’s been a very aggressive campaign. Maybe the Republicans were asleep at the wheel.”

Whether Tenenbaum can translate voters’ discomfort with DeMint into enthusiasm for her remains to be seen. Although far to the right of the national Democratic Party -- she supports the death penalty and a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, for example -- Tenenbaum falls far short of DeMint’s conservatism.

DeMint, in the campaign’s first debate, said he wants to “outlaw abortion,” and said embryonic stem cell research could lead to “producing children to kill them for research.” He said he would not support any kind of gun ban, and “in fact, in this day of terror, it would please me if a lot of my neighbors had guns and knew how to use them to keep this country safe.”

Tenenbaum supports abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research. She supported extending the ban on assault weapons. She responded sharply when DeMint said gay teachers should not be allowed to teach in public schools, saying “many wonderful teachers may or may not be gay” and calling his comments “un-American.”

In the conservative north of the state, that exchange lost Tenenbaum support in some quarters.

“I was really in her camp. I used to teach school,” said Harriett McKee Hart, 53. “This may sound so crass, or so Southern, but when Inez said she condoned homosexuals in this classroom, that did it for me. I called my friend and said, ‘Inez just lost me.’ ”

And to some, even in the job-starved Piedmont region, Tenenbaum’s anti-trade stance rings hollow. People here have accepted the successive blows of mill closings and don’t expect the mills to reappear, said Eddie Osborne, 56.

Osborne, a retired police officer, remembered growing up in a textile-mill village, where workers had no choice but to shop at the company store and pay rent for a company-owned house.

“Was that a good thing? It was like they owned you,” Osborne said. “As hard as it is, I think we’ve got to go to the future.”


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