In her pale-blue silk suit, South Carolina educator Inez Tenenbaum looks out of place alongside the submachine guns and copper moonshine stills at the Criminal Justice Academy here, where she is announcing her anti-crime plan.
But "soft" on crime - or anything else - is a rap she aims to dispatch early in a campaign that could tip the US Senate back to Democrats this fall.
From Day 1 of her Senate race, Tenenbaum, a two-term elected state superintendent of education, signaled that she will not trip up on issues that have derailed Democrats across the South, especially the tag of being soft on crime, weak on family values, or too close to "big spending liberals" in Washington.
"There is no Democratic or Republican way to fight crime, there's only the South Carolina way. We have to put protection of our citizens over partisanship," she said at her June 28 anti-crime event.
It's a theme she hits on every issue: South Carolina first. Political analysts say that it's a shrewd bid to distance herself from national Democrats, such as presidential nominee presumptive John Kerry, who are widely viewed in this state as too liberal.
The top vote-getter in the state, in either party, Tenenbaum represents the new face of a new Southern strategy for Democrats: recruiting strong, independent women who fit the state, even if they are at odds with the national party.
Like Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Tenenbaum hopes to beat the tide running against Democrats by appealing to moderate swing voters, many of whom are women.
She supports the death penalty, the right to bear arms, and a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
"Being tough on crime is one way of trying to reassure Southern moderates and conservatives that 'I'm in touch with the electorate,' " says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. "She is saying: 'Don't look at me as some kind of liberal who, if I went off to the Senate, would fall into bad company, like Ted Kennedy,' " he adds.
Democrats once owned politics in the South, but have been in a decline since conservative Democrats broke with the national party over civil rights. That trend accelerated in the 1990s, when Republicans swept into office up and down the ballot on a pro-family, lower-tax, anti-crime agenda.
Democrats in Senate races across the south welcomed the selection of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as vice presidential pick. "All South Carolinians should be excited to have on a national ticket a native son who clearly understands the needs of South Carolina's families," said Tenenbaum. Edwards was born in Seneca, S.C.
To take back the Senate, Democrats need to pick up two seats, while losing none of their own. (If Democrats win the White House, they need only one pickup, as the vice president breaks tie votes.) Six months ago, that looked unlikely, as many of the seats they were defending were in conservative states, five in the South. But candidates like Tenenbaum, with wide appeal in their states, are changing that calculus.
"More women vote than men, and they have been almost embarrassingly underrepresented in ... Congress. Even men are getting increasingly comfortable with women in leadership," says South Carolina Democratic party chairman Joe Erwin, who says he's actively recruiting women for positions across the ticket. "That's part of our future success, women running as Democrats. I almost hope Republicans don't figure it out," he adds.
In fact, South Carolina has sent only one woman to the US Congress in its history, and none to the Senate. "A growing number of professional women think it's about time," says Tenenbaum aide Kay Packett, a former Republican. "There is going to be a lot of excitement about her. She lights up a room."
Her record in improving South Carolina schools could also attract votes from independents and GOP women concerned about the quality of public schools. Education cuts across party lines, and could even mobilize the Democratic base. Quinton Green, an airport worker in Columbia, remembers Tenenbaum from her days as superintendent of Charleston County, where he attended elementary school. "As soon as I saw she was running, my vote was locked in," he says.
Still, Tenenbaum faces an uphill battle against Rep. Jim DeMint, who soundly defeated former Gov. David Beasley in the GOP runoff on June 22. He currently leads by seven points in campaign polls. Palmetto Candy Company owner Tom Jackson plans to vote for DeMint. "She's a very charismatic lady, very bright.... But she paid big bucks to consultants just to identify problems. To my mind, that's a negative in her campaign," he says.