S. Carolina Incumbent in Unexpected Tussle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 1998; Page A04
COLUMBIA, S.C., Sept. 29 For a popular incumbent in one of the most Republican states of the South, GOP Gov. David Beasley's reelection once seemed a sure thing. But Beasley has been put on the defensive on a volatile mix of issues from gambling to race to sex that reflect the realities of southern politics today.
Opposed by gambling interests, attacked by conservatives for being too moderate on race, Beasley now finds himself dealing with old allegations about an extramarital affair. The result is that an office that the GOP has held for more than a decade is suddenly in play, breathing new life into a Democratic Party that has been in retreat for years.
"We are in a dogfight," said Whit Ayres, Beasley's pollster.
Today, the embattled governor was forced to hold a news conference, with his pregnant wife at his side, to deny rumors of an affair with a former press secretary, Ginny Wolfe.
"I can tell you right up front [my wife] Mary Wood and I love each other dearly. We both have been faithful to one another 100 percent," Beasley said. He charged that Democratic leaders in alliance with the video poker industry have been spreading lies to destroy his reelection bid. "I hope this blows up in their face. I hope the people of South Carolina are outraged," he said.
Time magazine reported the two-year-old rumors this week, and state Democrats were pursuing it. A lawyer for the Democrats who have requested Beasley's office schedules, receipts and other records said he might ask Beasley under oath "if he has used his office to conduct sexual activity."
"David and I have a wonderful, faithful, Christ-centered marriage," said Mary Wood Beasley, who is seven months pregnant and the mother of three young children. Sitting with the governor and his wife were Wolfe and her husband. At the end of the news conference all four embraced in a collective hug.
The fortunes of the South Carolina Democratic Party, which had been on the verge of near collapse, have been rising steadily as voter wariness of Beasley has increased.
Powered by the combination of populist support for a state lottery to pay for education and a huge infusion of cash from the $2.4 billion-a-year video poker industry, the party and Jim Hodges, its gubernatorial nominee, have been able to drive wedges between traditional GOP constituencies.
The trends here are a case study of the troubles facing a Republican Party seeking to maintain an alliance of religious traditionalists, fiscal conservatives, businesses seeking federal money and an exploding suburban electorate hostile to government issuing moral dictates.
It is, in addition, a test case of whether southern Republicans lose white support when they play down racial themes. For Beasley, the evidence so far suggests the costs may outweigh the rewards. He has angered a segment of the white electorate with his position that the Confederate flag should be removed from the state capitol, while boosting Democrats who contend the flag issue brings African American voters to the polls, many of whom are likely to vote to protest the GOP-led impeachment inquiry of President Clinton.
The tensions within the southern GOP coalition in South Carolina would not have become explosive without the massive entry into state politics of the video poker industry.
The industry, which has betting machines in grocery, gas station and poker "casinos" across the state, is putting money into every conceivable vehicle to defeat Beasley, who has tried to legislate and regulate video poker out of business. In addition to "Ban Beasley" billboards, radio ads and a "dump Beasley" web site, the industry is providing much of the financing for the state Democratic Party, Hodges's campaign, for a pro-Confederate flag organization attacking Beasley and for an ad hoc alliance of moderate Republicans who have defected from their party.
The money has put the Democrats on equal, and perhaps even superior, financial footing to the GOP for the first time in recent memory.
The most surprising development in state politics is that Beasley, who has presided over a surging state economy, has been forced onto the ropes by Hodges, a former state representative who was virtually unknown outside of his home county a year ago, and allied interests.
Beasley, a former Democrat elected as a Republican to the governorship in 1994 with the strong support of the Christian Coalition, has, by all accounts, contributed significantly to his current problems.
In 1996, the governor alienated a segment of his base, especially white men, when halfway through his term he announced that his reading of the Bible told him that he should take down the Confederate flag, a proposal that prompted a firestorm within his party and across the state.
In recent years, the Confederate flag has become almost synonymous with the GOP in the South and white flight from the Democratic Party, an emotional symbol of the region's conservatism and of its continued defiant independence from the North. Retention of the Confederate flag has been a mainstay of GOP platforms throughout the region.
Beasley now said he will not go near the flag issue. "From my perspective, it's over," he said in an interview. "I'm never visiting that issue again, period."
And on Monday, Beasley, torn between public support for a lottery and the anti-gambling views of the Christian right, held a news conference to declare he has dropped his opposition to a referendum on starting a lottery. Aides acknowledge that Beasley has been on the losing side of the lottery issue, and that a Democratic television commercial has been devastating in its damage to his lead. In the ad, "Bubba," a bearded, "good old boy" with a Georgia T-shirt tells South Carolina voters:
"Here in Georgia, we appreciate you South Carolinians buying our lottery tickets, over $100 million worth. . . . Those Georgia lottery tickets y'all buy pretty much pay for our world-class preschools. Thank goodness your Gov. David Beasley won't let y'all have a lottery. As you might expect, here in Georgia, we love David Beasley."
An aide to Beasley said the campaign now recognizes that "if we let this election be about the lottery, we lose. If we can make it about video poker, we win." Until now, he said, a variety of attacks on Hodges have not worked, including repeated commercials linking Hodges to a concerned effort by the gambling industry to take over South Carolina, and a separate ad tying Hodges to Clinton on taxes as their images "morph" from one to the other. "We haven't been able to get anything to stick," the Beasley aide said.
While Democrats pound Beasley on the lottery, a right-wing group called the Palmetto League, also financed in part by video poker interests, has been on television with an ad attacking Beasley for changing positions on the flag and for exaggerating his athletic achievements in track events as a youth in a highly publicized 1995 talk to school children. "He breaks his promises and lies to school children," a narrator declares.
"We think Beasley's defeat will show the Republican Party where their conservative base comes from," said Jerry Creech, Palmetto League president. "That flag stands for our way of living," he said, adding, "We're different, we are the Bible-believing base of the United States, and we are not going to give it up without a fight." Creech said he opposes video poker, but "if they'll give us money to get our position across, so be it."
Beasley's publicized reversals on the Confederate flag and the lottery, and his efforts to quash the affair rumors, are an attempt to regain traction in the campaign agenda.
He may have found a way to put the onus back on the Democratic Party, which, in a complex legal case, had been seeking to question Beasley under oath about alleged sexual relations. Beasley today noted that the Democratic Party chairman, Richard A. Harpootlian, and the Democratic lawyer pursuing the case, Camden Lewis, both represent the video poker industry. Beasley called on Hodges to demand Harpootlian's resignation for spreading false rumors.
A spokesman said Hodges is "in deep disagreement" with Harpootlian and that Hodges believes the "campaign should not be about personal issues." Hodges will not, however, seek to impose his position on Harpootlian, the spokesman said.
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