Tarred with the L-word

Inez Tenenbaum, a conservative Democrat vying for retiring Sen. Fritz Hollings' seat, counters charges that she's too liberal for South Carolina.

By Mary Jacoby
Published October 31, 2004 9:53AM (EST)

Coming off the pier on this barrier island after a day of ocean fishing, Waylon Sherman and Ken Few paused to talk about South Carolina's U.S. Senate race. While national Democrats have high hopes that state education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum can hold the seat being vacated after 38 years by Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings, the fishermen found this prospect unlikely.

"It won't be Tenenbaum, that's for sure," said Few, a maintenance supervisor from Greer, S.C. "She's too liberal."

This is the paradox for Tenenbaum, a soft-spoken former attorney and elementary school teacher who is about as conservative as a Democrat can be. She is for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. She supports the war in Iraq. And she is in favor of the death penalty. But the question is whether even that is enough to carry South Carolina, a veterans-heavy state in the heart of the religious conservative South that voted 57 percent for George W. Bush in 2000.

Polls indicate a slight advantage for Tenenbaum's Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Jim DeMint, who has squandered a once-commanding lead with blunder after blunder. After shaking up her campaign staff in August, Tenenbaum hoped to capitalize on DeMint's missteps, including his assertion that gays and unmarried single mothers should not be allowed to teach in South Carolina's public schools.

Pounding DeMint for his support of a 23 percent federal sales tax, she has pulled tantalizingly close in the polls, buoyed by $3 million in anti-DeMint ads paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington. "It's a tight race, and it's going to turn on who gets the vote out," said Jack Bass, a professor of humanities and social sciences at the College of Charleston and coauthor of "The Transformation of Southern Politics: Social Change and Political Consequence Since 1945." Predictions? "I wouldn't make any," Bass said.

In a state where some upscale gyms offer separate workout areas for women uncomfortable with sweating in front of men, Tenenbaum scores points with her polite and feminine manner. Slim and elegant at 53, her dark hair neatly coifed, she has not let DeMint's television ads linking her to conservative bêtes noires Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., go unanswered. In a response ad, she looks into the camera, wrinkles her nose and says, "Ted Kennedy? Hillary Clinton? Can't Jim DeMint do any better than that?"

At the same time, though, Tenenbaum has been running her own unsparing attack ads, pounding DeMint on what she calls his support for "disturbing" ideas, including free trade with China, which has cost South Carolina thousands of textile jobs, and privatizing part of Social Security. Between them, DeMint and Tenenbaum have been running one of the most negative and harsh campaigns in recent South Carolina memory.

In a recent debate, DeMint repeatedly invoked John Kerry's name in an effort to tar Tenenbaum as a liberal. At the same time, the three-term congressman has tried to grab the president's coattails, running effective television ads showing Bush heaping praise on him. Tenenbaum, trying to dodge the fatal L-word, has distanced herself from the Democratic ticket -- she dropped in on the Democratic National Convention in Boston in August only briefly. "I'll always take an independent approach," she says in one of her television ads, "and I'll never have any agenda other than what's best for South Carolina."

Meantime, she has downplayed her support of abortion rights, making no mention of it on her campaign Web site, aware that it puts her out of step in the Palmetto State. But the price of running a right-of-center campaign may be the Democratic-leaning African-American vote in a state where blacks are nearly 30 percent of the population.

"There's not a great deal of enthusiasm for Tenenbaum in the black community because she's running a centrist campaign," said one close observer of South Carolina politics, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. "It's a delicate situation for her. Meanwhile, there's a small portion of the black community that is more for Bush and for her opponent [DeMint] this year than you'd expect, because they're both fundamentalist Christians, as are a lot of black voters." The GOP has made inroads among religiously conservative blacks with its wedge-issue campaign against gay marriage, this observer added.

But DeMint received bad publicity from his joint appearance with Tenenbaum on NBC's "Meet the Press" Oct. 17. Host Tim Russert pounded him about his statement that gays and unmarried mothers should not teach in public schools. It was the kind of intolerant position that could turn off a growing but not yet decisive population of non-native South Carolinians who have moved to the state in recent years -- Northern retirees here for the mild weather and low housing prices and workers attracted to the Grand Strand tourist area around Myrtle Beach.

DeMint's evasive answer to Russert -- he apologized not for his statement but for "distracting" voters from the real issues -- was panned by South Carolina's premier political commentator. "The U.S. Senate race is Jim DeMint's to lose," Lee Bandy wrote in the State newspaper, adding: "DeMint seems to be doing all he can to lose it." Bandy quoted Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen, a GOP activist, characterizing DeMint's campaign as an "amateur hour."

Still, the embarrassing DeMint may muddle through. A McLaughlin & Associates poll conducted Oct. 24-27 showed the Republican leading 46 percent to 38 percent, with a margin of error of 4.6 percent. The survey reinforced the results of a Mason-Dixon poll, conducted Oct. 19-20 for Charleston's Post and Courier, that put DeMint at 47 percent and Tenenbaum at 43 percent, just within the margin of error, unusually close for conservative South Carolina.

Mary Jacoby

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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