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S. Carolina Race Tests GOP Grip on South

'New South' Republican tries to wrest Senate seat from 'old South' Democrat

In the parlors of Charleston's gracious homes and at the tables of its famous old juke joints, a bare-knuckle battle is under way for the political heart of South Carolina - and, by extension, the future of the South.

In one of the fiercest, tightest political races in the nation, Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings - a senior member of the Senate and a former presidential contender - is fending off a spirited challenge by a young Republican congressman named Bob Inglis.

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Some pundits predict this race will determine whether the GOP can finally take full control of the Palmetto State, or whether the state's newly revitalized Democratic Party can begin to stanch its losses. If Mr. Hollings and Democrats can manage a win here, it may signal that the South - a political monolith whose tilt to the GOP helped the party seize control of Congress in 1994 - has not yet metamorphosed into Republican bedrock.

Hollings, the Democratic incumbent of 32 years, is one of the fathers of the new industrial South. But his opponent, a Christian conservative proud of his Boy Scout image, is the face of an even newer South: a Republican one. The race between the two has taken on Gothic dimensions.

Congressman Inglis charges that feisty, sometimes cantankerous Hollings is bought - a captive of political-action committees and corrupt "old-time politics."

The senator, in turn, calls Inglis a "fraud" and "the most arrogant man I've ever run against."

"It will be a squeaker, too close to call," says Bill Moore of the College of Charleston.

South Carolina, once solidly in the corner of conservative Dixiecrats, is now considered one of the most Republican states in the South. In 1996, for the first time, 51 percent of voters identified themselves as Republicans. Hollings and the state comptroller are the only Democrats left in statewide office.

The two candidates are as different in their styles as the old and the new South. Inglis campaigns from a 34-foot, bright red RV with a life-size picture of himself waving on the back. "We tried to sneak up on you," he jokes as he goes door to door in a manicured neighborhood in Florence.

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Kurt Neupert was barbecuing ribs in his driveway when Inglis stopped by. A well driller, Mr. Neupert is worried about small businesses. "Overtaxed, overregulated and overlitigated, is that it?" Inglis asks. "My opponent ... gets mad at me every time I say [it] ... so I say it all the time."

Florence is on the fringes of Inglis's base of support - the northwest part of the state. There, a revitalized industrial economy has caused a population boom. Many of the newcomers tend to lean Republican.

Ironically, much of the credit for the area's economic revival goes to Hollings - a fact even GOP leaders acknowledge. "I haven't managed to bring in any Democratic industries," Hollings jokes. "Somehow they always tend to be Republican."

That paradox spilled into the political arena in late August, when the US Chamber of Commerce endorsed Inglis, calling Hollings's voting record on business "absolutely dismal." But almost immediately, the state's chamber disavowed the move, and top business leaders came out in support of Hollings.

The senator, who drives a used Lincoln, takes a more traditional approach to campaigning. He shake hands along factory production lines and visits seniors' centers.

At a Head Start Learning Center in Charleston last month, he gave Inglis an "F" on education. The congressman has voted to cut funds for Head Start, against hiring extra teachers to reduce class size, and against a proposal to put police in school hallways.

Inglis shot back that Hollings thinks Washington should control education, not South Carolinians. Inglis supports school vouchers, but also says he's committed to public education.

The congressman and the senator also differ on campaign finance. Inglis won't accept money from political-action committees. "PACs are the way the lobbyists buy and sell the US House and the US Senate," he says.

But the Hollings camp notes that Inglis will accept millions of dollars from the national and state Republican Parties, which take money from PACs. "He doesn't take PAC money, he takes laundered PAC money," Hollings counters.

Inglis has charged that the senator does not really support a balanced budget, even though Hollings was a chief sponsor of the so-called Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill, one of the toughest balanced-budget measures ever enacted. The senator has also voted for a balanced-budget bill more than a dozen times.

"It's inconsistent to describe a commitment to balancing the budget and at the same time say that your record merits reelection because you bring home the bacon," insists Inglis.

Hollings, for his part, is proud of what he's done for South Carolina. Last spring, the senator snagged $40 million in federal funds to help replace the aging Cooper River bridges in Charleston. Inglis voted against the bill, contending the formula for disbursing the funds should have been changed to give South Carolina a better deal.

"That's [Hollings'a] view ... that if the hogs are lining up at the trough, let's get ours," says Inglis. "That's the old approach."

Old politics or new, pundits here contend that the real key to winning the race will be to energize enough people to get out and vote.

FOR the Democrats, the biggest challenge will be to woo back moderate to conservative middle-class voters. For decades, pundits say, the party took them for granted. Meanwhile, Republicans were waiting with open arms.

"Hollings has to solidify and expand on his support among upscale Republicans who are distressed by Inglis's ties to the religious right," says Hastings Wyman, author of Southern Political Report in Washington. "How he does that is another question."

Inglis's challenge, pundits say, is to become as well known in Hollings's territory in the low country as he is upstate in his own congressional district. To accomplish that, Inglis is getting help from big-name Republicans like former President Bush. Hollings, meanwhile, is distancing himself from a scandal-damaged President Clinton.

Nonetheless, both national parties have targeted the race. To Republicans, it looks like a way to pick up another Senate seat in their bid to get 60 votes, enough to shut off a filibuster. Democrats are just as determined to hold onto Hollings's vote.

Despite the national influence, the theme of old versus new keeps creeping into the race.

Inglis points out that he was in elementary school when Hollings was first elected to the Senate 32 years ago.

Hollings smiles and notes that he's 20 years younger than Strom Thurmond (R), the state's senior senator. "Now, I'm not trying to impress you with my youth," smiles the septuagenarian.

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