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The curious case of Alvin Greene, surprise Senate candidate

How did Alvin Greene, an unemployed Army veteran who lives with his dad, win a South Carolina primary without fundraising? House majority whip James Clyburn calls foul.

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South Carolina Democratic candidate for US Senate, Alvin Greene, shown in this photo in Manning, S.C. Wednesday.

Mary Ann Chastain/AP

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A cashier's check with the line "Alvin M. Greene for Senate" hand-scrawled at the top started the Army veteran's rise to political victory in South Carolina.

The check for $10,400 went to the state's Democratic Party. It was the fee to enter the primary for one of South Carolina's US Senate seats.

But Mr. Greene is a jobless man who lives with his dad and who did no fundraising. After his primary victory on Tuesday, officials, residents, and journalists are raising stark questions about what happened, starting with the cashier's check. At least one US lawmaker is calling for a federal investigation into Greene's candidacy – even as Greene has been charged with a felony for an alleged event last year, which could negate the primary election result. Greene beat Charleston's Vic Rawl, a former state lawmaker and judge, on Tuesday.

The mystery in part highlights the dire straits of South Carolina's Democratic Party, which failed to put a well-known name on the primary ballot – most likely because party leaders concentrated on pushing through a strong candidate for governor.

Some surmise that Greene is part of a Republican stalking-horse plot to help GOP Sen. Jim DeMint's chances for a second term. If that turns out to be the case, Greene could become a victim of a South Carolina political system that has descended into a litany of debauchery and just plain weirdness in the past year.

"It's important to bring some compassion to this, because if [Greene] is a stalking-horse for somebody, such people often get into a role where they don't understand what the risks are," says Mark Tompkins, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "They often end up as much of a victim as everybody else. Here we have an unemployed guy who needs to put his life together, and this probably isn't going to help him much."

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Rep. James Clyburn (D) of South Carolina, the House majority whip, put words to gathering suspicions about Greene's candidacy. "There were some real shenanigans going on in the South Carolina primary," said Representative Clyburn, who is calling for a federal investigation of the matter. "I don't know if he was a Republican plant; he was someone's plant."

Such a scenario isn't unheard of in American politics, and especially not in South Carolina. In 1990, Republican operative Rod Shealy paid the filing fee for Benjamin Hunt Jr., an unemployed shrimper, to run in a Republican primary. Mr. Shealy took a picture of the shrimper in front of a KFC outlet and showed it as an example of why Republican voters should show up to vote. Shealy was convicted of breaking South Carolina campaign laws by paying Mr. Hunt's filing fee.

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"The Greene case is a straightforward clone of an old story that we all know in South Carolina," Mr. Tompkins says.

Covering Shealy's trial, The New York Times wrote that "to many in the state ... the accusation speaks volumes about a style of South Carolina politics in which some people take peculiar pleasure in skulduggery and dirty tricks and shamelessly exploit racial differences and racism in the pursuit of victory."

In interviews, Greene has said his three top issues are jobs, education, and justice. He has at times seemed uncomfortable and has several times resisted having his picture taken, even while being interviewed on camera.

He told MSNBC's Keith Olbermann Thursday night that he's not a Republican plant. "I used my own funds up to this point in the primary and up until right now," he said.

Some South Carolinians believe stalking-horse tactics are widespread. Clyburn charged this week that two other state races included candidates who "fit a pattern" in which unknowns are paid to file for office.

"Alvin Greene, on TV, looks like someone who is just now realizing that he is the punchline for a very bad joke," writes Trapped in SC on the Field Negro blog, which looks at black societal issues.

Even though Greene was up against a more well-known candidate – Mr. Rawl sits on Charleston's County Council – Greene may have enjoyed a few benefits. First, he's black in a largely African-American district, and second, he was listed first on the ballot, which uses an alphabetical listing.

Greene says his victory was legitimate. "I had 60 percent of the vote," he told Mr. Olbermann. "Sixty percent of the vote is not luck. That's a decisive win."

Given the voting results, Greene will be the first major-party African-American in South Carolina to compete for the Senate since Reconstruction.

But complicating his candidacy, Greene was arrested last November in Columbia for "promoting obscenity" by allegedly showing a female college student obscene photos on a website in a public place. Greene has yet to enter a plea. He has not yet been indicted, which would nullify his candidacy under South Carolina law.

If Greene stays in the race, as he has vowed to do, he faces Senator DeMint, a tea-party favorite, and his $3.5 million campaign war chest in the general election.

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