AIKEN - Stung by sharp attacks this week on his support of a national sales tax, U.S. Rep. Jim DeMint, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, unveiled three radio debates next week with his Democratic opponent.
There's only one problem with the Thursday announcement - Mr. DeMint never bothered to call South Carolina Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum to see whether those times and dates fit her campaign schedule.
And that failure drew criticism from Mrs. Tenenbaum's campaign.
"If Jim DeMint really wants to debate this issue - as we do - he needs to find a time when both candidates can be present," said Kay Packett, Mrs. Tenebaum's press secretary. "No one called us to ask if there was a possibility for us to be there."
The Republican candidate's unilateral announcement of radio debates in Columbia, Greenville and Charleston has the tone and feel of mutually agreed upon events. But campaign spokesman Geoff Embler said Mr. DeMint's camp never called Mrs. Tenenbaum's campaign staff.
Mr. Embler denied any attempt at gamesmanship.
"Absolutely not," he said. "It's a call to have an open and honest debate about tax reform. There's no campaign trick.."
At the heart of this latest political firefight is Mr. DeMint's call for tax reform, including an abolition of the federal income tax and an end to the Internal Revenue Service. During a campaign stop in Aiken earlier this week, Mr. DeMint proposed the creation of a bipartisan tax commission as a vehicle for such reform.
But Mrs. Tenenbaum's operatives quickly seized on this call to highlight Mr. DeMint's support for a series of bills that would abolish the income tax and substitute it with a national sales tax. These proposals include a bill sponsored by Mr. DeMint that would levy a 23 percent sales tax on all goods and services, including new homes, cars, food, gasoline, home insurance and college tuition.
During a campaign stop at a new subdivision in Simpsonville, Mrs. Tenenbaum castigated Mr. DeMint for his "radical" proposal, charging a national sales tax would "devastate South Carolina's middle class."
"As middle class families across South Carolina are struggling to make ends meet, the last thing you need is a new 23 percent tax on every single thing you buy," Mrs. Tenenbaum said in a prepared statement. Earlier in the day, Mr. DeMint accused Mrs. Tenenbaum of engaging "in scare tactics and demagoguery to fool voters into thinking Jim DeMint wants to raise their taxes."
"This issue is too important to trivialize with silly campaign stunts," Mr. DeMint said in a prepared statement. "If Mrs. Tenenbaum really wants to talk about taxes, then let's have a debate."
Ms. Packett brushed aside the Republican's comments.
"That's nice if he wants to announce a debate. We can't wait to debate," she said. "But we need to work out a time and place that would be feasible for both candidates."
Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or firstname.lastname@example.org.