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The Supermarket Wars

Rival Chains Battle in S.C. Race

South Carolinians head to the primary polls today, rounding out the Palmetto State’s already-set presidential ballot with Congressional general election matchups that are expected to bring few surprises come November.

Still, one House race bears watching — if only to settle a score between rival grocery store chains that both operate in the coastal South Carolina district.

Rep. Henry Brown (R-S.C.), a former executive for Piggly Wiggly supermarkets, is expected today to advance easily to the November general election. Linda Ketner, the openly gay heiress to the Food Lion grocery store fortune, also is expected to skate to victory in the Democratic primary and advance to a general election clash with Brown.

In an interview, Ketner said she relishes the likely opportunity in November to settle the score between the rival grocery store chains.

“You know what lions’ favorite meal is? Warthog,” Ketner said. “I feel ribs coming on.”

Despite overtures by Ketner and other local Democrats, however, feasting in the solidly conservative district is easier said than done — even during the best of times for Democrats.

Republican pollster Whit Ayers called Democrats’ chances in the district “slim,” arguing that district voters had switched political allegiances well before it became trendy in the South two decades ago.

“It’s a district that’s been represented by Republicans for years, going back to Tommy Hartnet in the 1980s.” Ayers said. “ It’s a solidly conservative district.”

Little evidence put forth by local Democrats or Republicans counters Ayers claims about the district’s ruby-red bent, obvious from President Bush’s 61 percent take in 2000 and 2004. But while the odds are long, George Tempel, the chairman of the Charleston, S.C., Democratic Party, said that “now is the time” if Democrats ever hope to regain the seat.

Tempel also commended Ketner for running a smart campaign, which the candidate said weaves fiscal conservative positions with more middle-of-the-road stances on social issues. Compared with other areas of the state, even Ayers said the district is “not socially conservative.”

But Linda Bennett, the chairwoman of the Charleston Republican Party, said Democrats are “overly ambitious” to think Brown could be knocked off this cycle — regardless of the national political environment and the candidate’s net worth.

So far, Ketner said she has dumped $350,000 of her own money into the race. She said she expects the campaign to spend $2.4 million before November.

Perhaps more importantly, the district may prove to be a test case as to whether Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) one-time supporters ultimately defect to presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the likely Democratic presidential nominee, is unlikely to set foot in a state where McCain has essentially taken up residence since 2000.

“I’ve received calls from Democrat women who actually wanted to sign up to help get John McCain elected,” Bennett said. “I don’t think [Democrats] realize the mess they’ve created. Democrats here are very conservative generally. … This would be a place where a swing voter would swing [their] votes.”

Regarding where Clinton’s one-time supporters may wind up, Ketner said she suspects many will gravitate toward Obama, but her campaign does not “have a clear feel for it yet.”

She said the campaign will conduct its first poll in two weeks and that, as of Monday, her campaign had raised $830,000.

“The women here — [Clinton’s] big bloc — are moving to Obama,” Ketner said. “I haven’t seen many that are going to McCain.”

But historical voting data provided by the South Carolina Republican Party appear to counter Democratic expectations that McCain will falter in the district. For example, although Bush won the state in 2000 after a nasty primary, McCain won Brown’s district, 49 percent to 48 percent.

And McCain, who Brown endorsed, easily won the South Carolina primary earlier this year, taking roughly 50 percent more votes than his closest GOP rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Brown declined to discuss the possible general matchup until after all of today’s votes are counted.

“This is a crazy time, so I don’t want speculate too much on what might happen,” he said. “We’ve done everything we know to do.”

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