Playing It Safe in Carolina

Posted October 27, 2004 at 6:41pm

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Separated by less than 20 miles and just two hours, Rep. Jim DeMint (R) and South Carolina Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) campaigned for the title of chief optimist Tuesday as they began the final push for votes in the state’s open-seat Senate race.

Over pancakes and sausage links, DeMint addressed a friendly — and early-rising — crowd of roughly 25 people at Hot Stacks, a breakfast joint in downtown Myrtle Beach, the largest city on the “Grand Strand” of the state’s Atlantic coast.

“Some politicians want to convince us that the sky is falling,” said DeMint. “You know the sky is the limit.”

Hours later in a brief address to supporters gathered at the Horry County Court House in downtown Conway, a historic town along the Waccamaw River, Tenenbaum called herself an “incurable optimist when it comes to South Carolina’s future.”

She dismissed DeMint as someone who is peddling “big, bad ideas that sound good in Washington.”

Avoiding Controversy

At these dueling appearances as well as during the pair’s final debate the evening before, it became clear that with a poll showing DeMint and Tenenbaum locked in a statistical dead heat, neither side is willing to take any risks that could tilt the electorate.

Both candidates deflected questions about their biggest weaknesses during Monday night’s debate at Coastal Carolina University’s Wheelwright Auditorium.

The event created a palpable excitement on the campus, a mood perhaps not seen since the Chanticleers — affectionately known as the “Chants” — made their last NCAA basketball tournament appearance during the 1993-1994 season.

When asked by conservative radio commentator Armstrong Williams, with whom she verbally sparred throughout the night, about her position on when life begins, Tenenbaum equivocated before saying: “I don’t have an answer for it.”

Although she hasn’t said it often on the stump, Tenenbaum has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, a national organization dedicated to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights.

She has also said she would support a partial-birth abortion ban as long as it includes exceptions for the life and the health of the mother, provisions that were not included in the legislation approved by the House and Senate.

DeMint was similarly dodgy when asked to explain whether in his heart he believed that gay and unwed pregnant women should not be school teachers.

“I am not going to take a swing at that curve ball again,” DeMint told moderator Jim Heath, a local news anchor. “We are talking about something in a Senate race that has nothing to do with being a United States Senator.”

A month earlier, DeMint had said he did not believe homosexuals should be allowed to teach in the public schools. Then, in an awkward attempt to show that he is not anti-gay, he added pregnant single women to the list of those who should not teach.

One supporter of the Congressman was less than subtle about his feelings on the issue as the two sides chanted slogans across a sidewalk in front of the auditorium before the debate.

“Let a queer teach your kid, not mine,” he snarled at the Tenenbaum backers, who were chanting “we don’t need a rubber stamp” as police officers watched over the verbal melee.

‘I Am a Democrat’

Overall, Tenenbaum appears the more scripted of the two on the stump, relentlessly repeating her campaign theme that “it’s not whose team you’re on, it’s whose side you’re on.”

Tenenbaum’s repetition of that phrase along with her attacks on DeMint’s alleged support for a 23 percent national sales tax induced muffled laughter and occasional eye-rolling among the debate attendees.

At the debate, Tenenbaum did acknowledge that she would vote for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) on Tuesday.

“I am a Democrat, I was born a Democrat, I married a Democrat,” she said. “I am proud of that.”

Aside from that profession of party loyalty, Tenenbaum has largely avoided ready ties to national Democrats, a sound strategy given the state’s decided conservative lean.

President Bush carried South Carolina with 57 percent in 2000, a total he is likely to match on Tuesday.

Tenenbaum regularly touts her conservative credentials, and she points out that in her 2002 re-election race she led all candidates — Democrats and Republicans — in total votes received.

“This is a state with extraordinarily independent people,” Tenenbaum said in an interview aboard the Red Dress Express, an RV with an image of Tenenbaum plastered on its sides that shuttles her across the state.

(Tenenbaum has been sporting red dresses and suits for several weeks straight, even though she confesses her supply runs out after roughly 10 days, forcing her to the dry cleaners.)

She also argues that geography — not partisanship — is a more dominant issue in voters’ minds.

South Carolina is divided into four distinct regions, and each has a widely differing set of priorities.

Tenenbaum and her allies note that if DeMint wins, both of the state’s Senators will be from the Upstate, a portion of the state centered on the cities of Greenville and Spartanburg.

“We don’t need a collection of power in the Upcountry,” said Egerton Burroughs, a construction company executive who is supporting Tenenbaum and introduced her at the Conway event. “The Lowcountry has had it hard enough.”

The Lowcountry takes in Charleston and the areas on the state’s Southern coastline. Tenenbaum hails from the Midlands, which includes the state capital of Columbia; Myrtle Beach and Florence are population centers in the Pee Dee.

DeMint, who appeared more relaxed Monday night than in past debates, insists that geography should not be used to divide the electorate because “what is good for Myrtle Beach is good for Spartanburg.”

“South Carolina is not competing against itself,” DeMint said.

While Tenenbaum has done everything in her power to keep national dynamics from entering into the race, unlike her past races for state office, she faces a well-funded effort this time — from both DeMint and the National Republican Senatorial Committee — to strap her to leading national Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.).

“A vote for [Tenenbaum] is a vote for liberal values in the Senate,” says the narrator in an NRSC-sponsored radio ad currently running in Myrtle Beach.

Even with the recent influx of $1 million for a television and radio buy in the final two weeks of the campaign, the NRSC is being drastically outspent by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has laid out more than $4 million on Tenenbaum’s behalf.

The DSCC’s advertising has focused on DeMint’s co-sponsorship of legislation that would abolish the current tax code and replace it with a 23 percent national sales tax.

That issue has catapulted Tenenbaum back into contention after lagging in the polls a month ago. But DeMint supporters insist that trying to label the Republican as a tax raiser will backfire on the Democrat.

“The 23 percent ad was presented unfairly,” said Billie Greer, a DeMint backer interviewed outside of Monday night’s debate. “She is trying to put one over on us.”

‘Jim DeMint, George Bush’

Seeking to cement Tenenbaum’s national ties, DeMint regularly mentions that the first vote a Senator must cast is for the individual to lead his or her party in the chamber.

And, he adds, on issues ranging from tax reform to federal judges, most South Carolinians prefer the positions of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Bush to those of Daschle and Kerry.

“This is a race about who is going to be in charge of the United States Senate,” DeMint told the crowd at Hot Stacks.

As a result, Bush and a number of other Republican surrogates like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Palmetto State Gov. Mark Sanford are playing an increasingly visible role on the campaign trail and the television airwaves in the race’s final weeks.

NRSC Chairman George Allen (Va.) campaigned with DeMint in Hilton Head on Tuesday, and Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) will stump in the state on DeMint’s behalf over the final days.

DeMint said he is perfectly comfortable with the race as a referendum on which candidate better represents Bush’s views.

“South Carolinians trust the president,” said DeMint. “It is important to support the president on key issues.”

Backers of the Congressman have taken to chanting “Jim DeMint, George Bush” in a sign of their unified support for the Republican ticket. One man, driving by the Tenenbaum rally Tuesday, shouted the mantra out his car window, pumping his fist for emphasis.

‘Surrogates Don’t Matter’

Tenenbaum describes DeMint’s decision to bring out Republican heavy-hitters as an acknowledgement that “Jim knows he’s weak right now.”

She added that the latest television spot by the DeMint camp uses 2-year-old footage of Bush endorsing the Congressman when he was seeking a third term to his 4th district.

“Surrogates don’t matter,” maintained Tenenbaum. “People want to see you.”

Although the race is one of just nine that are expected to decide control of the Senate, the interest level for the race varies widely among South Carolinians.

For some, like Gary and Jean Vogelsong, electing DeMint is crucial.

“He wants things for our children,” Jean Vogelsong said as she hoisted a DeMint sign at the debate; her husband added that the state was dead last in the country in SAT scores on Tenenbaum’s watch.

Others were less enthused about the contest.

“I hate politics after the 2000 election,” said a clerk at the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove, a huge tchotchke emporium in the heart of Myrtle Beach.

Marvin McHone, the owner of Marvin’s Food & Games, a bar and restaurant on the Myrtle Beach boardwalk, echoed that sentiment.

“I haven’t heard anybody talk about [the Senate race],” he said, before adding: “I think DeMint will take it.”