Democratic state education superintendent Inez Tenenbaum is giving Republicans an unexpectedly tough battle for a U.S. Senate seat in conservative South Carolina.
Tenenbaum is running as an independent-minded Democrat who distances herself from her party's presidential nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, and has her foe on the defensive on an issue that normally favors Republicans: taxes.
With elections two weeks away, Tenenbaum appears locked in a close race with Rep. Jim DeMint to succeed retiring seven-term Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings.
"The South Carolina seat had been expected to be easy pickings for the Republicans," said Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "I'd still say DeMint has the edge. This is South Carolina. But the race is now a tossup."
The contest is among about eight competitive races that will likely determine control of the U.S. Senate, where Republicans now hold 51 of the 100 seats.
Like many congressional Democrats in the South, Tenenbaum has managed to make it a race by often sounding like a Republican.
She supports gun rights, tax relief, the death penalty, the Iraq war and a proposed constitutional amendment pushed by President George W. Bush to ban gay marriage.
Tenenbaum has also fended off DeMint's attempts to tie her to Democrats who have blocked much of Bush's conservative agenda in Congress.
"This race is not about whose team you are on, it's about whose side you are on," said Tenenbaum. "I have shown over and over again that I'm on the side of the working men and women of South Carolina."
Just a month or so ago, DeMint had a double-digit lead in the polls. He has run as a fiscal conservative aligned with Bush, who is expected to easily carry the state in the White House race.
"At this time of war, in this time of economic recovery, who we choose as president is really critical and it says a lot about what we believe," DeMint contends.
But DeMint's lead evaporated when Tenenbaum put him on the defensive for his support of a proposal to eliminate federal taxes and the Internal Revenue Service and replace them with a 23-percent national sales tax.
Tenenbaum charged that the proposal would hurt low- and middle-income families. DeMint disagrees.
"It's a big idea. But it's also a bad idea. And a big idea that is a bad idea is a big bad idea," said Tenenbaum, first elected as state education superintendent in 1998.
DeMint countered that Tenenbaum had distorted his proposal and position. "My commitment is to get rid of the tax code, get rid of the IRS and cut taxes," the three-term lawmaker said.
DeMint recently raised eyebrows when he said homosexuals and unwed pregnant women living with their boyfriends should not be allowed to teach in public schools. After a crush of criticism, he backed off.
"I think Jim DeMint is still ahead in this race, but he would be further ahead if he kept his mouth shut," said Danielle Vinson, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.
During a debate in Greenville last week, Tenenbaum was asked whom she backed for president and to identify one area of disagreement she had with him.
"I will vote for John Kerry," Tenenbaum said. But she said she disagreed with his assessment of Iraq as "the wrong war, at the wrong time, for the wrong reason."
"I stand with our troops and I do believe that we have done the right thing," she said.
DeMint replied: "I want to be clear that I do support President Bush. ... He has led the world on this war on terror."
DeMint mentioned no differences with Bush and said he wanted to be another vote for him in the Senate on such matters as Social Security, taxes, energy and judicial nominees.
After the debate, Tenenbaum, asked if a visit to South Carolina by Kerry, widely seen as a New England liberal, would help or hurt her campaign, shrugged, "I don't know."
The same question to DeMint prompted campaign manager Terry Sullivan to gush: "We'd buy him a ticket to come."