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Coalition of The Willing?

Palmetto State Democrats Searching for Hollings’ Heir

Sen. Fritz Hollings’ (D-S.C.) recent announcement that the state Democratic Party should begin actively looking for candidates to replace him on the ballot in 2004 has set off rampant speculation about who might succeed him if he does not seek an eighth term.The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee commissioned a poll roughly two weeks ago to test the chances of a number of candidates in an open-seat race.

While DSCC spokesman Brad Woodhouse refused to comment on the poll, knowledgeable sources said it was conducted for the committee by Mark Mellman.

In the poll, both Hollings and state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) led the likely Republican nominee, Rep. Jim DeMint, in head-to-head matchups, said one Democrat, though general approval numbers for Republican elected officials were sky high.

In an attempt to provide some level of clarity to the situation, Roll Call contacted each Democrat mentioned as a potential candidate to see whether he or she would run if Hollings does not, and found the “nays” far outweighing the “yeas” to this point.

Among those in the “no” column are Reps. John Spratt and James Clyburn, wealthy business leaders Hayne Hipp and Darla Moore, as well as 2002 Senate nominee Alex Sanders.

Tenenbaum, the fastest rising star in state Democratic circles, did not rule the race out but said she would not begin to seriously contemplate it until the close of the state legislative session. The session ended Thursday night.

State House Minority Leader James Smith said the open-seat race is “something I and my family would seriously consider.”

State Sen. Tommy Moore said he would “entertain the thought” of running but added: “I am yet to be convinced that [Hollings] isn’t running.”

Mayors Joe Riley (Charleston) and Bob Coble (Columbia), as well as state Sen. Nikki Setzler and former Rep. Robin Tallon, who is now a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., did not return calls for comment.

All of the potential Democratic candidates — as well as the likely Republican nominee — did agree on one thing: Hollings represents their best chance to hold the seat.

“Our preference and hope is that Senator Hollings will run for re-election,” Smith said.

“I’d rather not run against him,” said DeMint. “I don’t want to spend the campaign talking down the Senator.”

Both national committees pledged an aggressive campaign regardless of Hollings’ decision.

“Whether or not Fritz Hollings decides to run, we believe South Carolina will be a heavily contested and very competitive race,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Allen.

“No one should think that if Senator Hollings doesn’t run for re-election that Democrats are going to give up on South Carolina,” said Woodhouse.

The 81-year-old Senator is clearly conflicted about his future plans. He has acknowledged that he would like to make another run but said that his wife, Peatsy, is less than keen about the prospect.

He has served in the Senate since 1966 and is one of only three statewide Democratic elected officials in South Carolina. In 1998, Hollings beat back a challenge from then-Rep. Bob Inglis (R), 53 percent to 46 percent.

The official word from Hollings’ office at press time is that he is “undecided” about 2004.

Even as they hope Hollings decides to sign up for one more race, national Democrats are doing their best to avoid the recruiting debacle that may have damaged their chances in the 2002 Senate race.

In that contest, the DSCC publicly struggled to convince a candidate to take on then-Rep. Lindsey Graham (R), who had surprisingly cleared the primary field for the open-seat race.

Sanders, the eventual nominee, told Roll Call at the time that he was the Democrats’ “ninth choice” for the race; and, while his folksy personality charmed many national reporters, he was unable to seriously compete against Graham, who won by 10 points.

“We have taken an approach that we don’t try or have an interest in seeing these things play out in public,” said Woodhouse, who added that the DSCC should not bear the brunt of the criticism for the recruitment debacle in 2002.

“There are always other actors involved” in recruiting, Woodhouse explained.

The clear first choice as a replacement to Hollings is Tenenbaum, who has served as the state’s top official on education policy since 1998.

In 2002, even with Graham cruising to a win and former Rep. Mark Sanford (R) toppling a Democratic governor, Tenenbaum won with 59 percent of the vote. She won 58 percent in the 1998 open-seat race.

Tenenbaum, whose wealthy husband was a longtime finance chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, ran statewide unsuccessfully in 1994, losing a primary for lieutenant governor.

Her base in Columbia (Lexington County) could counteract traditional Republican strength in the state capital as well.

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

Former state party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said geography may be the most powerful tool working for Democrats in 2004.

With Graham already in the Senate and DeMint the leading GOP candidate for Hollings’ seat, Harpootlian argued that Palmetto State voters are not likely to want two Senators from the Up Country.

“That is a big piece of computing the viability of any candidate,” said Harpootlian, who said the best base for a potential Democratic candidate to have is in either Charleston or Myrtle Beach — both in what is known as the Low Country.

Although Tenenbaum has previously signaled that her preference is to run for governor in 2006 against Sanford, she did not close the door on a Senate bid in 2004.

“As of right now I am focused on getting my budget through the Legislature,” she said last week, shortly before the session ended. “After we finish that I will be able to sit down and give this serious consideration.”

One Democratic consultant familiar with state politics suggested that Tenenbaum “is a very real possibility and she would be a very strong candidate.”

If both Hollings and Tenenbaum decide against the race, Smith, who was elected Minority Leader earlier this year, appears ready and willing to jump into the fray.

Smith, a 35-year-old attorney, has represented the downtown Columbia area for four terms. Asked about the race, Smith said that “a number of people asked me about it and said I should give it some thought.”

Moore is a longtime state Senator, having first been elected to his west-central seat in 1980. Prior to that he served a single term in the state House.

While most of the action in recent days has been on the Democratic side, Republicans seem to be headed toward a competitive primary as well.

DeMint remains the frontrunner, but former state Attorney General Charlie Condon, former Rep. Tommy Hartnett and developer Thomas Ravenel cannot be ruled out. Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride is in the race as well but is not given a chance to win the nomination.

Questions surrounding DeMint’s ability to raise enough money to fully finance the race have created an opportunity for other candidates, and if the three-term Congressman is unable to show significant cash in the bank in his June 30 Federal Election Commission filing he could quickly lose his frontrunner status, according to sources familiar with the race.

In an interview Thursday, DeMint expressed confidence that he would meet his goal of raising $1 million by the end of June.

Through March 31, DeMint had taken in $385,000. A strong second quarter is deemed necessary because DeMint has much of the finance team that helped Graham raise better than $6 million in 2002.

Hollings had $912,000 in the bank through March 31, but raised only $6,000 in the first quarter of the year.

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