Heading South?

Posted August 8, 2003 at 5:53pm

Just one week after Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) announced he would not seek a seventh full term, Democrats’ hopes of uniting behind one candidate to replace the legendary politician appear to be dissolving.

While national Democrats are attempting to coalesce the party behind state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble has formed an exploratory committee and is planning to conduct a poll testing his viability this week.

Tenenbaum is expected to make the race, according to numerous state and national sources, and will make a formal announcement in the next two weeks.

“I am very close to making a decision,” Tenenbaum said Friday. “I am leaning very favorably toward running.”

Coble, who has been mayor of Columbia since 1990, seemed unruffled by efforts to anoint Tenenbaum.

“Unless they let some national Democrats vote down here, I’m not too concerned,” he said. “Until someone says they’re running, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

And, at least one state Democratic official believes the national party should stay out of the internal wrangling.

“Keep your noses out of our business,” said former state party Chairman Dick

Harpootlian. “Washington political wisdom has gotten us in the mess we are in.”

Marcus Belk, who is heading up the presidential exploratory committee of jailed former Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio), is also in the race. Belk is not considered a serious candidate.

Republicans are sure to have a primary fight as Rep. Jim DeMint, former state Attorney General Charlie Condon, wealthy Charleston developer Thomas Ravenel and Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride are all running.

The possibility of a divisive primary between two well-known Democratic politicians could further endanger the party’s chances of holding onto the Palmetto State seat, which took a blow when Hollings decided against running again.

Most D.C. Democrats believe that Tenenbaum, who has twice been elected statewide, is far and away the party’s strongest candidate but must have a clear primary field if she has any hopes of winning next fall.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Mike Siegel called Tenenbaum “a proven votegetter who has a profile that works very well as a statewide candidate for Senate.”

In a poll conducted for the committee in late May, Tenenbaum led DeMint 45 percent to 33 percent.

“It is very important for the eventual Democratic nominee not to have a primary,” said one Democratic consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Coble rejected that argument in an interview Thursday, noting that “you can definitely say that Democrats who have run for office and did not have primary opposition have lost.”

Harpootlian seconded Coble, saying that “a primary is not only not harmful, it is helpful.”

Both men pointed to 2002 nominee Alex Sanders, who lost an open-seat race to now-Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) by 10 points, as an example of the fact that a cleared primary field is not always a good thing.

Sanders became the Democrats’ choice after a long process of courting other candidates, none of whom entered the race. Sanders said at the time that he was the “ninth choice” of the party.

Tenenbaum is significantly higher on Democrats’ wish list this time around.

First elected to her current post in 1998, Democrats are quick to note that in both that race and her 2002 re-election campaign, Tenenbaum was the top votegetter on the ballot. In 2002, she received 50,000 more votes than Graham.

National Democrats also believe Tenenbaum’s profile — a woman with a strong record of reforming education — represents their best chance of winning what they acknowledge is an uphill battle.

Her husband, Sam, is a former finance chairman of the state party and personally wealthy, another advantage for Tenenbaum in the eyes of Democrats.

Coble, however, would clearly present a serious challenge for Tenenbaum.

He has held the mayor’s office in the state’s capital and largest city for 13 years and is currently in the first year of his fourth four-year term.

“A mayor gives a different perspective,” Coble explained about his interest in the race. Coble called himself a “new Democrat” and is pro-abortion rights. His staff and constituents refer to him as “Mayor Bob.”

He said that his soon-to-be-conducted poll, which will be handled by Columbia-based survey researcher Cary Cranford, is aimed at testing whether “combining homeland security and crime” is an attractive issue matrix for the state’s voters.

Coble insisted that he has little interest in the horse-race aspect of the poll, saying that “as a Democrat in a Republican state there is no sense spending a lot of time on whether we can win a general election.”

“My only issue is whether I can add something on a substantive level,” said Coble.

Coble and Tenenbaum share a base in Lexington County (Columbia), which would be the likely battleground in any primary race.

The Columbia media market covers roughly 25 percent of the state and reaches a significantly larger segment of the Democratic primary vote.

Even Tenenbaum’s most ardent advocates admit that Coble has significant name recognition in the area and would make a strong showing.

The Lexington base, however, is likely to be a major asset for either Tenenbaum or Coble in the general election as Republicans have traditionally relied on the county to pile up their winning margins.

In 2002, Tenenbaum carried Lexington with 57 percent of the vote; then-Gov. Jim Hodges (D) and Sanders each took less than 40 percent in the county in losing efforts.

While Democrats continue to debate their eventual nominee, Republicans have done little to hide their glee regarding Hollings’ decision and a potential primary on the other side of the aisle.

“This seat is totally up for grabs right now,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Dan Allen. “We all know that the South is good territory [for Republicans] and South Carolina in particular is a great opportunity for us.”

Siegel argued that the Republican field is significantly weaker than would be expected given the strongly GOP nature of the state.

“South Carolina is supposed to be the crown jewel of the Republican Party, and yet they have a lot of less-than-stellar candidates running for Senate,” said Siegel.

“None of these people are Lindsey Graham,” he added.