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Rare Changing of Guard in S. Carolina

Strom Thurmond spent nearly five decades as a senator. Voters' deep affection for 99-year-old is an underlying current in race to succeed him.

October 28, 2002|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBIA, S.C. — When South Carolinians go to the polls Nov. 5, they will name a new U.S. senator. In many places, that might seem routine. But around here, it's an act fairly ringing with historical moment.

The man vacating the position, Strom Thurmond, has held the spot since 1954 -- a tenure of such stunning duration that only about 1 in 3 South Carolina residents was alive when he took office. The state's junior senator, Ernest F. Hollings, 80, is no arriviste either. He gained his seat in 1966. For evidence of the South's tradition of favoring incumbents, one need look no farther than South Carolina, which has elected just six U.S. senators since 1930.

With control of the Senate at stake in races nationwide, the seat is a must-keep for Republicans seeking to regain their hold. But if the campaign here wears an extra layer of significance, it stems from the uncustomary turnover -- and from South Carolina's deep affection for the 99-year-old Thurmond, a conservative icon whose near-legend status here has set the bar high for his would-be successors.

Both contenders, U.S. Rep. Lindsey O. Graham, like Thurmond a Republican, and Democrat Alex Sanders, a former judge and retired college president, have gone out of their way to lay claim to the towering Thurmond legacy. Voters are taking careful measure.

"Can either one fill Thurmond's shoes? No. I don't think anyone ever could do it," said Mack Bigby, a salesman at a clothing store down the street from the state capital complex, where a statue depicts Thurmond in purposeful stride. "He's been there so long. He was a politician before politicians started kicking and scratching to get elected."

For his part, Thurmond has endorsed Graham, a fellow conservative who made a name for himself statewide and around the country in 1999 as one of the House prosecutors in the Senate impeachment of President Clinton. Graham, if successful, would become the first member of that team to win election to a higher office.

Four of his Republican impeachment colleagues have fallen to defeat in subsequent election bids. One other retired, six are seeking reelection and another, former Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, was tapped to lead the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Graham's prominence during the impeachment gave him a boost in South Carolina, which twice voted against Clinton, and it helped deter other Republicans from vying for the Senate seat. The name recognition also provided a big head start over Sanders, a former appellate court judge who headed the College of Charleston. Recent polls show Graham leading by as many as 17 points, but the Sanders campaign insists that its own surveys suggest a much closer race.

"It's ours to lose," Graham said during an interview last week at a campaign barbecue attended by about 150 supporters in downtown Columbia.

Graham, 47, who grew up in the state's conservative northwestern belt, known as Upcountry, emphasizes his ideological resemblance to Thurmond. He is fond of pointing out that the two won nearly identical ratings from the American Conservative Union (Graham has a grade of 93, Thurmond 91). Graham is playful on the topic of Thurmond's longevity. "If I am going to do the Strom thing," Graham told supporters, "my successor will be born two years from now."

In his stump speeches, Graham emphasizes his allegiance to President Bush -- although he backed John McCain during the 2000 presidential primary -- and he delights in portraying Sanders as a darling of American liberals, ticking off some of the Democrat's supporters, including Barbra Streisand, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). At the Columbia event, Graham's youthful twang dripped as he characterized Sanders' backers as "a who's who of the left."

"I'm the conservative voice," he said later.

Graham's campaign commercials, playing to the state's right-wing tilt, have played up Sanders' opposition to the death penalty and to an amendment that would outlaw burning of the American flag. Sanders said he opposes capital punishment on religious grounds and a flag-burning law as contrary to free-speech guarantees, but the damage may have been done.

"These issues resonate in South Carolina. The Democrats here are much more conservative than Democrats elsewhere," said Brad Gomez, an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina.

The 64-year-old Sanders, whose extensive resume also includes stints as a law school teacher, state representative and state senator, protests the liberal tag, despite a few donations by celebrities he has never met. (Streisand sent $1,000.) "I've gotten a lot less from celebrities than [Graham] is getting from the drug companies," Sanders said in an interview.

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