S.C. Democrats eye Thurmond, fall elections
(CNN) -- South Carolina Democrats will get back to basic politics on the banks of the Little Pee Dee River Monday night at a century-old stump meeting in Galivants Ferry, South Carolina. It is a time-honored tradition in this Republican state, and a must for any Democrat looking to win this November.
Democratic candidates for every office ranging from governor to probate judge will travel from across the state to sample the local delicacy, a messy, rice-and-poultry concoction called chicken bog. They'll marvel at the Old Dock Cloggers, laugh at shared memories and make new ones.
Most important, they will do plenty of gripping and grinning with the party faithful.
The Galivants Ferry event offers Democratic candidates a chance to "practice eyeball-to-eyeball politics," said Russell Holliday, whose family has been organizing this Democrats-only event since the late 1800s.
Forget the splashy TV and radio ads, said Holliday. Her event in the parking lot of an old general store 115 miles east of Columbia is really the place for a candidate to test the waters. "There used to be a myth that if you didn't come you wouldn't win the election."
Winning is something South Carolina Democrats think they can do a lot of this fall.
The state "is not so Republican as it is Independent," said Dick Harpootlian, chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party. He noted that South Carolina boasts a Democratic governor, a Republican-controlled legislature and a split ticket in the U.S. Senate -- retiring Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond and Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings.
According to Harpootlian, "neither party dominates" in the state, though statistics may indicate otherwise. President Bush took a 16-point win over Al Gore in the 2000 election, and the last Democratic Presidential nominee to carry South Carolina was Jimmy Carter in 1976.
"Republicans always turn out for the presidential elections," said Lee Bandy, who has been covering politics for The State newspaper in Columbia for the last 40 years. "Republicans won't have that advantage this year."
South Carolina politics comes down to "two competitive minority parties and whichever one has the right candidate and the right message wins," Bandy said.
Democrats and Republicans are hoping their candidate to replace Thurmond, an eight-term lawmaker, will have both. His is the first open U.S. Senate seat in South Carolina in 36 years.
Republicans are touting Rep. Lindsey Graham from the 3rd District. Graham, known to most as a House manager in former President Clinton's impeachment trial, has a relatively conservative voting record, coupled with his anti-abortion position and support of the death penalty Those traits, say observers, make him a clear favorite among the upstate voters.
President Bush has also jumped into the fray, raising money for Graham and appearing in a campaign ad highlighting the congressman's record on education. On top of that, Graham has Thurmond's blessing to be his successor
Democrats think they have an ace in the hole with former College of Charleston President Alex Sanders.
"He's not your typical blow-dried Washington politician," says Harpootlian. "He's not going to take polls to decide where he stands on issues."
A former state legislator and chief judge of the state court of appeals, Sanders is against the death penalty, supports abortion rights and is an advocate of public education -- traits that could make him vulnerable, some Republicans contend.
They are not drawbacks, said Harpootlian. "His opposition to the death penalty comes from deeply held religious beliefs, and that works in South Carolina," he said.
Harpootlian also said Republicans are out of touch with more moderate voters and African-Americans on issues like the economy and education.
Sanders, said Bandy, is a "beloved figure" in the African-American community. A successful Democratic candidate in South Carolina wins by picking up 90-95 percent of the African-American vote and about 40 percent of the white voters, Bandy said.
"You have to remember: When a Democrat wins statewide, they only do it with about 52 percent of the vote," Bandy said.
He thinks Sanders can do it if he can keep down Graham's margin of victory in the upstate, the more conservative portion South Carolina. The battleground, he said, will be along the coast, where the more liberal voters live. Sanders' strong ties to Charleston could give him an edge in this area, he said.
"This U.S. Senate race could turn out to be the most exciting race in the country," he said. "...The most important vote South Carolinians will cast, the one they will give the most serious consideration to, is the vote to replace Strom Thurmond, the legend. They will think long and hard about that."
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