Primary Posturing

Posted June 1, 2004 at 6:29pm

Less than a week before South Carolina Republicans will choose their nominee in the state’s open-seat Senate race, three of the leading GOP candidates are circulating private polling that indicates they will be the one to advance to the likely June 22 runoff with former Gov. David Beasley (R).

Real estate developer Thomas Ravenel (R) is touting a Wirthlin Worldwide survey taken late last week for his campaign that showed Beasley in the lead with 39 percent while Rep. Jim DeMint took 20 percent and Ravenel received 19 percent. Former state Attorney General Charlie Condon trailed with 13 percent.

“We are the only one moving our numbers,” said Ravenel spokesman Mike Green about the poll results.

Both DeMint and Condon rejected the idea that Ravenel is contending for second place.

“The only poll that shows Thomas Ravenel anywhere out of the low teens is Thomas Ravenel’s poll,” said DeMint campaign manager Terry Sullivan.

“Our internal polls show that Ravenel’s numbers have flatlined,” said Condon spokeswoman Christy Fargnoli. “We have surged past Ravenel.”

Privately, most Republican observers see DeMint as best positioned to advance to a runoff with Beasley but admit that significant movement is possible in the final days of campaigning.

As evidence of their campaign’s confidence, neither of DeMint’s final two ads make mention of any of the other candidates, choosing instead to focus on the Congressman’s accomplishments.

“We don’t take anything for granted but the Congressman’s message has really been resonating with voters,” said Sullivan. “We are confident with where we are and where we are heading.”

Sullivan, however, couldn’t resist a slap at Beasley, predicting that it will be a “huge momentum killer when he shows up in the mid to upper 30s on June 8.”

Richard Quinn, a consultant to Beasley’s campaign, called that rhetoric “trying to put a happy face on defeat,” noting that with four candidates spending better than $1 million it is unreasonable to expect one to emerge with more than 40 percent.

“Our goal is to be in the runoff and be the top votegetter,” added Quinn.

If, as expected, none of the Republicans reaches 50 percent on Tuesday, a runoff will take place two weeks later. The eventual winner will face state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) in the fall. Tenenbaum faces a nuisance primary.

While Tenenbaum is largely husbanding her resources, the Republican race has already seen more than $8 million in spending, according to pre-primary reports filed with the Federal Election Commission last week.

Ravenel has led the money chase, expending nearly $2.5 million — largely in personal donations — as of May 19. DeMint runs a close second, disbursing $2 million, primarily on a media campaign designed to introduce the three-term Upstate Congressman to Republican voters across South Carolina.

Sullivan said that the practical effect of the record-breaking spending by the candidates has been to suppress voter interest in the contest and confuse those voters who are paying attention.

“The runoff is going to clear a lot of that up,” added Sullivan. “There is a stark contrast between us and Beasley.”

Ravenel is working hard to ensure that DeMint never has the chance for a one-on-one matchup with Beasley, however.

“DeMint has been running for two years now and [voters] haven’t seen us,” said Green when asked about his candidate’s supposed rise in the poll. “We are a fresh, new voice.”

The Wirthlin survey was in the field May 25 and 26 testing 400 likely voters with a 4.9 percent margin of error.

Green also signaled that Ravenel’s campaign commercials will soon begin to draw contrasts between himself and the other candidates — a tactic he has largely avoided to this point. Rolling out a potential ad theme, Green noted that Ravenel is the only candidate not accepting donations from political action committees — a tacit shot at DeMint, who until this Senate race had not accepted any PAC money.

Ravenel’s personal wealth has allowed him to fund the race almost entirely from his own pocket. Of the $2.5 million he had raised in his pre-primary filing, all but $250,000 came in the form of personal donations.

“If we need more, more will go in,” said Green about Ravenel’s continued willingness to donate to the race.

Condon appears somewhat lost in this spending spree, having doled out just more than $1 million through May 19. Despite being outspent, Fargnoli believes that Condon’s experience and name identification — built on two successful runs for attorney general and a failed 2002 race for governor — will be enough to vault him into contention.

“It’s obvious that Charlie is the candidate with the most experience when it comes to security issues,” said Fargnoli. “When it comes down to it, people are looking for security.”

Credentials aside, Ravenel is hoping to portray Condon as out of the running in an attempt to consolidate the Low Country vote, which is centered in Charleston and where both have a political base.

“We are talking the same issues,” said Green about Condon and Ravenel. “There is no difference between us and Condon.”

Waiting in the wings is Tenenbaum, who has yet to run any television or radio advertising in the campaign. She had raised more than $2.2 million as of May 19 with $1.3 million on hand.

“The Republican primary looks a lot like the box office race between ‘Troy,’ ‘Van Helsing’ and ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ — overhyped films that opened to tepid reviews — while you could say we’re the Harry Potter campaign, the looming blockbuster that’s poised to blow the competition away,” said Tenenbaum spokesman Adam Kovacevich.