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Spratt Could Be Targeted in ’06

National and South Carolina Republican leaders are aggressively recruiting state Rep. Ralph Norman (R) to run against veteran Rep. John Spratt (S.C.) in 2006, believing that the ranking member on the Budget Committee is vulnerable in the increasingly GOP-friendly territory he represents back home.

Norman was in Washington, D.C., on Monday meeting with top party officials, including White House political strategist Karl Rove and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman.

The White House’s active involvement in wooing Norman could be evidence of a GOP effort to offset any potential problems President Bush’s low poll numbers create for GOP recruiting efforts in other Congressional races. While Democrats have demonstrated an early willingness to go after more veteran incumbents as a means of expanding the field of competitive seats in the 2006 cycle, Spratt is the most senior Democratic target to emerge so far.

Republicans are making it no secret that they plan to paint Spratt as a close ally of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and as a standard-bearer for a national Democratic Party his constituents have few values in common with. Spratt holds the title of Assistant to the Minority Leader in the House Democratic Caucus.

In an interview Tuesday, Norman said he is seriously considering making the race against Spratt and that he is encouraged by the support that has already been pledged to his still hypothetical campaign.

The 52-year-old freshman legislator said he will make a decision about running by early next week, after reviewing the results of a poll he recently commissioned. The survey was conducted by Washington, D.C.-based pollster Jon Lerner of Red Sea, LLC, and Norman expects to leave the results in hand tomorrow.

“This seat’s been coveted by the Republicans for a long time,” Norman said. “But I guess this is the first time I’ve really taken a hard look at it, mainly because the support they’ve lined up is real credible.”

He indicated that all six of the South Carolina Republicans in Congress are prepared to coalesce behind his campaign, if he runs.

“Whenever you have a Karl Rove and a Ken Mehlman and a [Sen.] Lindsey Graham and a [Sen.] Jim DeMint, all the Congressional delegation behind you, it is appealing,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of support but whether that will translate into votes, I don’t know.”

In addition to the prospect of facing a well-financed, well-known incumbent, the expansive nature of the 5th district’s media markets presents an added monetary challenge for any Spratt opponent.

Candidates would have to buy TV time in Greenville-Spartanburg, Columbia and Myrtle Beach-Florence, in addition to the cost-prohibitive Charlotte, N.C., market in order to reach all voters in the district.

Some also question whether Norman, who was first elected to the state House in 2004, might get the full support of the district’s GOP establishment — considering some office holders have long-harbored their own Congressional ambitions while waiting quietly for Spratt’s retirement.

But Katon Dawson, chairman of the state GOP, praised Norman as a top-tier candidate and said that Republicans were encouraged about the opportunity to pick up the seat in 2006. He argued that Spratt has camouflaged his true political ideology to voters back in his district.

“John Spratt is now with Nancy Pelosi and identified with Nancy Pelosi,” Dawson said. “He has now identified himself and can no longer escape the title of a liberal Democrat here in South Carolina and we haven’t had a liberal Democrat win in a long time in any race here.”

Democrats, meanwhile, brushed aside talk that Spratt might see his first competitive race in a decade next year.

“National Republicans always say they will target Congressman Spratt for defeat, and they always fail,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg. “That will be the case again next year. Congressman Spratt is a strong voice for South Carolina families.”

Norman, a real estate developer who has long been active in Republican politics, resides in Rock Hill, in the same county as Spratt.

While Norman described Spratt as a “good person,” he said that his ideological differences with the 12-term lawmaker were the driving force behind his interest in the campaign.

In the 2004 presidential contest, President Bush won 57 percent of the vote in the district, although the seat’s Democratic performance was improved slightly during the last round of redistricting.

Democratic pollster Fred Yang, who has worked for Spratt since his 1994 re-election race, acknowledged the partisan realities of the district but argued Republicans will have to do more than simply pin a party label on the well-liked Congressman.

“He’s been a Democrat all his life and people there know he’s a Democrat,” Yang said, adding that Spratt has always been cognizant of the district’s leanings. “The bottom line is he’s always prepared for tough elections. People there know he’s a Democrat and still vote for him because of the things he does there locally.”

Spratt, first elected in 1982, faced his most competitive re-election race in 1994, when local businessman and school board member Larry Bigham held the incumbent to 52 percent. Bigham ran again in 1996, but since then Spratt has been re-elected with relative ease. Last year he received 63 percent of the vote against an unknown Republican challenger.

If Norman runs, it will not be the first time in recent years that the GOP has targeted a seemingly safe incumbent. In the 2004 cycle, Republicans fielded competitive challengers against entrenched Democratic Reps. Allen Boyd (Fla.) and Rick Boucher (Va.). Boyd won 62 percent and Boucher was re-elected with 59 percent, even as President Bush won both socially conservative districts with 54 percent and 59 percent, respectively.

Meanwhile, Norman recalled the irony of his Monday meeting with Rove, noting that it was the second time that their political paths have crossed.

In 1973, when Norman was the head of the college Republicans at Presbyterian College, Lee Atwater and another man whom Norman didn’t know paid him a late night visit while canvassing support for Atwater’s bid to become chairman of the state Republican Party. Atwater went on to become chairman of the Republican National Committee 15 years later.

Norman said he didn’t know it then, but he’s since realized that the other man was Rove, a fact that the deputy White House chief of staff confirmed for him at their meeting this week.

“They came and showed up at my dorm at 1 or 2 in the morning. Lee wanted my support, he was running for state head,” Norman recalled. “It’s ironic.”