As executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, Nathan Daschle can expertly spin his party's chances of winning any of the 37 gubernatorial races on tap this fall.
But ask him to name a "sleeper" race where the party has a chance to steal a statehouse, and the first state he cites: South Carolina.
The deep-red Palmetto State holds its primary Tuesday, and Mr. Daschle in an interview said the result could only increase his party's chance of winning the governor's race, a post Democrats have held for just four of the past 23 years.
"It looks like we will be getting a varsity-level candidate, probably as strong a candidate as we could hope for, while given what's happening on the other side, the voters of South Carolina might just be looking for a change," Mr. Daschle said.
The woes on the "other side" start with the ethical and romantic trials of outgoing Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, whose approval rating plummeted in the wake of the international scandal over his extramarital affair and very public divorce.
The Republican primary campaign to succeed Mr. Sanford has brought more unwanted notoriety to the state. Front-runner state Rep. Nikki Haley of Lexington has angrily denied two charges of infidelity while being called a "raghead" by a Republican state legislator and supporter of one of her main rivals, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer. An Indian-American, Mrs. Haley was born a Sikh but converted to Christianity in the 1990s.
Mrs. Haley categorically denied the infidelity charges, calling them "South Carolina politics at its worst." She said the attacks were being leaked by operatives for her rivals in the Republican primary race, a countercharge her opponents promptly denied.
Mr. Daschle has an interest in playing up GOP divisions in the race, but his opinion was seconded late last week by one of the very Republicans seeking the nomination.
"The behavior of my opponents, their campaigns and their supporters over the last few weeks has not served our state well," state Attorney General Henry McMaster said Friday. "In fact, it's been embarrassing."
The GOP gubernatorial primary has proved divisive beyond the state's borders, with major party figures backing each of the four top candidates.
Mrs. Haley, a favorite of the "tea party" movement, is backed by former Govs. Sarah Palin of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, as well as by popular former state first lady Jenny Sanford. Former GOP Gov. David Beasley is backing Mr. McMaster.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has taped television ads in support of Mr. Bauer, while Vice President Dick Cheney has weighed in in favor of Rep. Gresham Barrett, the fourth Republican in the race.
The primary has been nearly as competitive but far more civil on the Democratic side. Party leaders have been rallying around state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden. Mr. Sheheen has a lead in the polls and the fundraising race against lead challenger Jim Rex, the state education superintendent.
Despite their front-runner status, it appears likely that neither Mrs. Haley nor Mr. Sheheen will get the majority of votes in the primary to avoid a June 22 runoff.
As in a number of states, the 2010 gubernatorial race in South Carolina takes on added importance because of the looming redistricting battles in the wake of this year's census. Republicans are widely expected to retain control of both houses of the General Assembly, and a Democratic win in the governor's race would give the party a crucial seat at the table when the lines are redrawn.
The state, whose U.S. House delegation now included four Republicans and two Democrats, is projected to gain at least one new seat after the census results are tallied.
South Carolina Republicans dismiss the idea that the nasty primary jeopardizes their hold on the governor's mansion. Both Mrs. Haley and Mr. McMaster outpolled the leading Democratic candidates in a recent survey, and leading independent forecasters such as the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report rate the governor's race as a "likely" Republican win.
But Mr. Daschle said the mudslinging and name-calling on the Republican side could change that calculus by November.
"This is actually a race where the 'change' message could help us," he said.
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