Alex Sanders, the Democrat running to fill Strom Thurmond's U.S. Senate seat, learned a quick political lesson recently about the eight-term lawmaker's untouchable status in South Carolina.
In several campaign speeches, Sanders said that as senator, he'd show the nation that South Carolina was more than just "ignorant, racist, redneck Dixiecrats" – a line many perceived as a slight to the revered Thurmond, who ran for president under the segregationist Dixiecrat banner in 1948. An uproar ensued and Sanders quickly promised to stop using the phrase, saying he merely wanted to shoot down Northern stereotypes of the South.
The race between Sanders and Republican Lindsey Graham is the first open-seat Senate contest in the state since 1966, and both candidates are fully aware of the challenges they face in replacing the 99-year-old Thurmond, who defined South Carolina politics for much of the second half of the 20th Century.
"Strom Thurmond is in a different kind of league," says Ron Romine, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina-Spartanburg. "He is an icon, an institution … it's hard for people to think of the Senate, or South Carolina politics, without Strom being in it."
Graham, a boyish 46-year-old first elected to the House of Representatives in 1994, emerged as a GOP darling in the late '90s as one of the House managers during former President Clinton's impeachment, drawing attention both for his sharp criticism of Mr. Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and his pithy, folksy manner during the tense hearings.
In 2000, however, Graham angered many in the Republican establishment when he backed Sen. John McCain's bid for the GOP presidential nomination. He squired McCain around South Carolina in the weeks leading up to the state's crucial early primary, which McCain eventually lost to George W. Bush.
Some Bush loyalists still harbor a bit of resentment.
"In some Republican circles, Graham is not the fair-haired boy because of McCain," Romine said.
In politics, however, staying mad works only until you need something. Hopes of regaining control of the Senate, currently tilted to the Democrats by just one vote, quickly mended most GOP fences.
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have both traveled to South Carolina for Graham, raising $1.6 million in the process. Graham has opened a significant financial edge over his Democratic rival. According to the candidates' latest FEC filings, Graham raised nearly $4.9 million to Sanders' $2.7 million. Graham also has a comfortable lead in the polls, with the most recent one showing him 16 points ahead of Sanders.
On the Democratic side of the ticket is Alex Sanders, the tall, silver-haired, 63-year-old former president of the College of Charleston. A favorite in national party circles, Sanders was glowingly profiled in The New Yorker earlier this year, prompting one Graham adviser to crack that in South Carolina, Sanders would have been better off appearing in Field & Stream.
The New Yorker aside, Sanders' resume makes it almost impossible to label him a liberal, or anything else for that matter. He is a member of both the NAACP and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He's a lawyer, former judge and state lawmaker whose Web site even brags that he's a "humorist" - no exaggeration, apparently, as tales of his skills as a raconteur are legendary.
"One would be hard-pressed to find a more perfect candidate than Alex Sanders, and even Republicans would be hard-pressed to deny this," Romine said. "No one can accuse him of not being South Carolina to the bone."
Graham has bragged about that his "voting record is almost a mirror image of" Thurmond's and stressed the importance of balancing the state's senatorial delegation with a Republican alongside the "junior" senator, 80-year-old Ernest Hollings. Graham, a solid conservative, has touted his break with the GOP on campaign finance reform to lure the swing voters who likely will decide the race.
Sanders has been forced to balance his sometimes conflicting ideological positions – he is adamantly opposed to the death penalty, for example, but rabidly conservative on fiscal matters – with his engaging personality. He has attacked "borrow and spend" Republicans while handing out miniature cards with his face on them, along with a stick of bubblegum. He's toured with South Carolina's favorite author, Pat Conroy, holding campaign events that one columnist described as "call-up-your-buddy-late-at-night-and-repeat-what-they-said" funny.
But campaign styles and issues aside, like many South Carolina races, this one could come down to simple geography.
Politically, economically and socially, the Palmetto State has always been divided between "low country" – the lush area along the Atlantic coastline – and "upcountry" – the hardscrabble area loaded with traditionally white, heavily Protestant, lower-income voters. Sanders, who comes from right in between the two areas, is popular in the low country, where he has lived for three decades and was elected to both the state House and Senate. Graham represents the 3rd Congressional District, which is almost entirely upcountry.
Analysts say the low country likely is leaning towards Sanders, while Graham has the more highly populated upcountry locked up.
"[Sanders] is not known in the upstate and this is where elections are decided," Romine said. "This is where the people are, and Sanders has a lot of work to do up here."
But even if Sanders runs a flawless campaign, the GOP's dominance in South Carolina will make it hard for any Democrat to win statewide. The numbers are certainly stacked against him: South Carolina was the only Deep South state to vote for Richard Nixon over George Wallace in 1968, and it has voted Democratic in a presidential contest only once in 30 years - for fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976. In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore by 16 percentage points in the state.
"It's not issues so much as ideology and party. South Carolina is solidly conservative, mainly Republican. It's that simple," says Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia.
Still, there is hope for Sanders. South Carolina's governor, Jim Hodges, is a Democrat, and in off-presidential years, Democrats like Hodges have managed to slip past the GOP barricade.
"In all reality, I think he's got a shot," Romine said of Sanders. "It depends on money and fire in the belly."
By Douglas Kiker