COLUMBIA - Former Gov. David Beasley or three-term U.S. Rep. Jim DeMint? Republicans are sizing up which candidate can galvanize the party and beat Democratic challenger Inez Tenenbaum in the fall.
The Republican nominee who comes out of the runoff election June 22 will ride the coattails of President Bush in November, but voters have to decide who has the most political baggage to tow.
Mr. DeMint is considered the tougher opponent against Mrs. Tenenbaum simply because he is a blank slate for many voters, who will scrutinize Mr. Beasley more in the general election.
"There is experience with Beasley that the people of the state of South Carolina had that they do not have with Jim DeMint," said College of Charleston political scientist Bill Moore. "Beasley in part suffers because he is the better-known entity."
In 1998, South Carolinians ousted then-Gov. Beasley after Confederate flag and video gambling supporters pumped millions of dollars into Democrat Jim Hodges' campaign.
However, two years ago, a vote giving the president added power to negotiate trade agreements cost Mr. DeMint support in textile-rich South Carolina, where April's unemployment rate was in double digits in 10 of the 46 counties. Some manufacturing executives and blue-collar workers have vowed to support Mr. DeMint's opponents.
The trade issue seems to be the easiest place to spot a difference between the two conservative candidates.
"A Republican candidate has a tough time winning in November if he tries to defend the present unfair trade practices that have caused South Carolina to lose more jobs per capita than other states," Mr. Beasley said. "If I'm the nominee, that takes jobs, trade off the table for the Democrats."
Mr. Beasley and Mrs. Tenenbaum have similar views on trade as mild protectionists, said Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen.
Mr. DeMint is unapologetic about his view on free trade and says he can take the heat.
"Certainly, we've had a difficult time transitioning from an old mill village type of environment in the '60s to one that is very international and high-tech," he said. "To try to say that we're going to go backwards is a false promise, and that's not where South Carolina wants to go."
Inez Tenenbaum will challenge Jim DeMint or David Beasley for a Senate seat in the fall.