contest may have
long-term impact on GOP
JUNE 21, 2002 -- You can almost hear the conversation
that may have taken place seven years ago when Lindsey Graham and
Mark Sanford were brand spanking new congressmen in Washington:
SANFORD: "Man, ain't this something to be
GRAHAM: "Yeah, it's the first step."
SANFORD: "Step in what?"
GRAHAM: "It's the first step of how we can
take over Republican politics in South Carolina for a generation."
SANFORD: "Huh? What do you mean?"
GRAHAM: "Here's how it will work. You're only
up here for six years because of term limits. When you step down
in 2000, you'll spend time with your family for awhile. Then you
will announce you're running for governor. About the same time,
I'll announce I'm running for U.S. Senate because Strom probably
SANFORD: "Me? Run for governor?"
GRAHAM: "Yeah. All you have to do is come
in first or second in the primary - - just like you did when you
won your congressional seat. Then in the runoff, I'll endorse you
and you'll coast to victory."
SANFORD: "It could make the rank-and-file
party members mad - - if you get involved in a primary."
GRAHAM: "Don't worry. It will blow over. What
are they going to do - - vote for a Democrat?"
* * * * *
O.K. So the conversation probably never happened.
But with the startling developments in the GOP governor's race over
the last couple of weeks, it certainly sounds plausible.
Graham has angered Upstate conservative voters
with a last-minute endorsement of his friend Sanford. Many of them
say they now won't vote for Graham because they didn't like him
meddling in the primary. Supporters of Sanford's runoff opponent,
Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler, are particularly irked.
Then came news that former Gov. Carroll Campbell,
who usually stays on the sidelines, now sides with Sanford.
The conservative GOP base has got to be perplexed.
Surely, they're wondering what to do in Tuesday's runoff - - go
with Peeler, their ideological choice, or Sanford, who seems to
be picking up endorsements like dogs get fleas in the summer.
Party stalwarts are looking for direction. The
old guard, which until Campbell's endorsement seemed to be with
Peeler, now is pitted against a new brand of John McCain-style maverick.
Sanford and Graham supported McCain for president. Campbell and
Peeler supported George W. Bush.
One thing is for sure - - the Republican Party
is going through an identity crisis that's been growing. Who are
the real leaders for the GOP in a time when opportunists seem to
University of South Carolina political scientist
Blease Graham (no relation to Lindsey) says an old Jeffersonian
maxim holds political parties cleanse themselves about every 20
years. In South Carolina, Republicans now seem to be going through
the process, he suggests.
"These guys (Sanford and Graham) are trying
to reinvent their version of Ronald Reagan, but I think Graham is
being tainted with this (Newt) Gingrich perception of being too
controversial," Blease Graham says. "They're attacking
the old leadership."
Whatever happens Tuesday, it's clear the Republican
Party, which grew into prominence under Campbell, is weaker than
it has been. Unless it gets its act together, November's statewide
elections could bring bad news.