Democrats face trouble in South

Dearth of candidates and sagging morale challenge party that long reigned in region.

After more than half a century in public life - and the longest tenure as a junior senator in history - "quitter" would hardly be the first word that comes to mind when describing the career of Sen. Ernest Hollings.

That strong supporters even whisper the word is a sign of how deeply the South Carolina Democrat's announced retirement this week affects morale and prospects for Democrats in the 2004 race to control Congress.

"People will see us as quitters. [The late Sen.] Strom Thurmond stayed until he was 100," says Elizabeth Alston, a Democratic activist and former school board member in Charleston. "The exit of Fritz Hollings means we're going to really need a strong candidate ... and courage."

But strong candidates and fighting spirit aren't necessarily in surplus. Many Democrats privately calculate that their prospects are bleak - not just for the next election but longer term. That is making it hard to find many top-flight aspirants to replace Mr. Hollings and others on a growing list of retiring incumbents.

With the US House and Senate closely divided, South Carolina is a case study of the challenge. Winning a seventh Senate term wasn't assured, even for an incumbent as seasoned and popular as Hollings. George W. Bush took the state by 16 points in the 2000 presidential vote, and Democrats' statewide decline continued in the 2002 elections. It's a struggle for the party even to finance its next presidential primary.

But the biggest problem is overcoming the perception - conviction among many - that Democrats in South Carolina are destined to become a permanent minority in the state or at least to spend a long time in the political wilderness.

"It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy," says Ron Rapoport, a political scientist at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va.

"One of the problems is just getting people to run. There is a sense of hopelessness and great difficulty in getting money."

Senator Hollings had been preparing Democrats in the state for the possibility that he might not run for months. State party officials have already been turned down by eight prominent Democrats, including former Gov. Jim Hodges. The leading prospects appear to be Inez Tenenbaum, South Carolina's superintendent of schools and the leading vote getter in the state. Bob Coble, the mayor of Columbia, is also reported to be considering a run.

Republican prospects include Rep. Jim DeMint of Greenville, Charleston businessman Thomas Ravenel, the son of a former congressman, and Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride.

A DEARTH of Democratic candidates and money to finance them is a problem across the south. Georgia Sen. Zell Miller has already announced that he will not run again for office, and Sens. Bob Graham of Florida and John Edwards of North Carolina could also withdraw to focus on the presidential race. "Democrats didn't need another open seat in the south," says congressional analyst Jennifer Duffy with the Washington-based Cook Political Report.

"Senator Hollings is one of the greatest, but he was going to be in for a very challenging reelection campaign. [Bush adviser] Karl Rove has targeted this seat, and we know what a strong political force he is," says Joe Erwin, the newly elected state Democratic party chair.

A successful advertising entrepreneur, Mr. Erwin says he had his own doubts about getting involved in party politics, after the dismal November elections. When Democrats first tried to recruit him for the job, he just said no. He had never held any kind of party office and, besides, the party was "in the tank," he said. But he changed his mind: "When things look their bleakest is the time of greatest opportunity."

"Fritz was a mentor. He represents everything good about what being a South Carolina Democrat is, and now it's time for others to take up his calling."

Hollings made a similar point Monday: "The people of this state have been unusually good to me.... Now it's time for someone else to take over."

Still, activists say it's a struggle to convince people to take the plunge, given the current Republican tilt. "When you're going to give up that kind of time and ask your family and friends for money, you want to think you are going to get something out of it. If you want a future in politics, you don't want too many losing races on your record," says Diane Aghapour, outgoing county chair for Charleston.

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