Conley provides Graham unconventional challenge

COLUMBIA --- Democratic candidate Bob Conley's conservative views don't always mesh with those of most Democrats at the state and federal levels, but in Aiken County, at least, he's got the party chairman's vote.

"He is generating a lot of interest," Chairman John Brecht said.

Mr. Conley, a former Republican, is considered by some to be more conservative than U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican he is challenging in the Nov. 4 election. But that's OK with Mr. Brecht.

"I have gotten a number of calls about him, people wondering what we can do to help him," Mr. Brecht said. "And these are Republicans."

He and Mr. Conley recently met for dinner at Aiken's Pizza Joint. Mr. Brecht says he still doesn't know a great deal about Mr. Conley, but he believes the 43-year-old pilot will work better with the next president, who he hopes will be Democrat Barack Obama.

"Bob Conley will work with Barack Obama and probably the Democratic caucus in the Senate," Mr. Brecht said.

But some say it is Mr. Graham who has been too eager to compromise, and that has thrown unexpected support behind Mr. Conley. Polls have shown Mr. Conley trailing Mr. Graham by margins ranging from 9 points to the mid-teens.

Mr. Graham's prominent role in U.S. Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign also hasn't helped, said Dave Woodard, a Republican consultant who managed Mr. Graham's congressional bids in the 1990s.

"As McCain has fallen, so, too, has Lindsey," Mr. Woodard said. He pointed to instances when Mr. Graham strayed from a hard-line stance on immigration and Social Security.

"Lindsey, like John McCain, has always been willing to compromise to get things done," Mr. Woodard said. "But a lot of South Carolina wants government to quit doing some (programs), and they want a government that will say no."

Graham spokesman Scott Farmer agreed there is a link between Mr. McCain's fortunes in South Carolina and Mr. Graham's.

But Mr. Conley's support, Mr. Farmer said, is what any Democrat is expected to garner in the state.

"If you have a 'D' next to your name," Mr. Farmer said, "you get a base vote of somewhere between 40 and 45 percent. Period. It doesn't matter who you are."

Reach Sarita Chourey at (803) 727-4257 or sarita.chourey@morris.com.