When Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) announced his retirement 14 months ago, the conventional wisdom was that Republicans -- already strong in South Carolina and likely to add to their strength with President Bush on the ballot -- would almost certainly pick up the seat.

But, in one of the biggest surprises of the sharply contested and unpredictable battle for control of the Senate, Democrat Inez Moore Tenenbaum, the state superintendent of education and the state's top vote-getter in the past two elections, has made the race competitive.

Although polls show Rep. Jim DeMint (R) leading Tenenbaum by four or five percentage points, that is considerably closer than before DeMint got caught up in a couple of controversies -- over taxes and gay rights -- that helped revive Tenenbaum's campaign.

Tenenbaum exploited DeMint's support for the scrapping of federal income and payroll taxes in favor of a national sales tax, saying such a move would result in a 23 percent levy on groceries, housing and everything else that people buy. The same poll that showed Tenenbaum had bounced back showed that the sales tax idea had bombed.

A little later, DeMint said in a televised debate that gays should not be allowed to teach in public schools. Then he suggested unmarried mothers should be added to the no-teach list. He later apologized -- not for his views but for the fact that they were a "distraction" from other issues.

DeMint has been stressing his biggest asset: his support for Bush and backing for his candidacy by top South Carolina Republicans, including Gov. Mark Sanford and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham. Tenenbaum has been trying to run independently of her national ticket, although she says she will vote for it. She emphasizes her support for such conservative causes as the death penalty, the Iraq war and the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Bush is running well ahead of Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry in the state, and local strategists say the size of the margin could make the difference for DeMint and Tenenbaum.

Republican Criticizes Bush

Bush's push in Minnesota hit an unlikely roadblock yesterday. Former senator David F. Durenberger (R), a well-respected voice on health care, penned an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune eviscerating Bush's record on the issue and describing Kerry's plan as moving "in a long-overdue direction."

Durenberger, chairman of the National Institute of Health Policy at the University of St. Thomas, laid out his case for why health care is moving in the wrong direction. He cited statistics on rising costs and the growing number of uninsured people. "As a Republican, with some experience, I sincerely regret having to say the record over the last four years and the prescription for reform the president is proposing give me little confidence that this most challenging of all domestic priorities will be adequately addressed over the next four years," he wrote.

In particular, Durenberger criticized the Medicare prescription drug law that Bush pushed as a windfall for insurers at the expense of the elderly and taxpayers. He said Bush's "underfunded" tax credits for buying insurance would "undermine and weaken employer-based coverage and make it even more difficult to find insurance coverage for the least healthy among us."

Bush's contention that Kerry's proposal would lead to "big government"-style health care is "not true," Durenberger wrote. Kerry's proposal of expanding government and private programs is more in line with what moderate Democrats and "mainstream Republican senators," including Durenberger, tried to enact in 1994, he said.

"It is the national security position on which President Bush and Sen. Kerry differ most and the one on which Kerry has the clearer vision for restoring security to all Americans."