CHARLESTON, S.C. | A black lawmaker is battling the son of one-time segregationist Strom Thurmond for the Republican congressional nomination here, a contest that could provide an indicator of both racial progress in the South and the GOP's efforts to diversify the party.
There are black men in the White House and at the helm of the Republican Party, but there hasn't been a black Republican in the House of Representatives since Oklahoma's J.C. Watts retired in 2003.
Tim Scott, already South Carolina's first black Republican legislator in a century, has a shot at changing that, but first he has to beat Paul Thurmond, whose father served as governor, senator and memorably ran for president as a Dixiecrat on a segregationist platform six decades ago.
The senior Mr. Thurmond moved away from his earlier views and strove for racial reconciliation during his decades in the Senate. When he died seven years ago at age 100, he was eulogized by black and white South Carolinians alike.
Mr. Scott, a 44-year old who runs an insurance business, got more than 30 percent of the vote in the nine-way primary last week. Mr. Thurmond, a 34-year-old lawyer and member of the Charleston County Council, got about half that, but there's a runoff Tuesday because no candidate received more than 50 percent.
Mr. Scott is one of three black Republican congressional hopefuls in runoffs nationwide. Five have won their party nominations outright, and several others are expected to, said David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
But Mr. Scott said he is focused on issues, not race or history.
"My father said that the future is more important than the past," Mr. Scott said. "We should be appreciative of our heritage but at the end of the day it's more about tomorrow: Can America sustain $13 trillion in deficit?"
Paul Thurmond echoed that, saying: "It's not about the color of our skin. It's about our background and our message. Tim has not run on the color of his skin and I have not run on my father's name."
Charlie Bodine, a 40-year-old salesman who moved to the state about 10 years ago, said he plans to vote for Paul Thurmond, though he doesn't know much about him beyond who his father was.
"It's probably just the name," Mr. Bodine said. "It really is. And it's just as simple as that for me."
Mary Beth Kellenses, a 23-year-old office manager for a law firm, said she's voting for Mr. Scott, but she doesn't care about his race or Mr. Thurmond's lineage.
"I just love Tim Scott," she said. "It gets really irritating when people mention things about him being black or Strom Thurmond - that's not who his son is."
The two are competing for the 1st District seat held by retiring GOP Rep. Henry Brown in a district that reaches from the pastel buildings and quiet alleys of Charleston, northeast past affluent Sullivans Island where tens of thousands of slaves first landed in America, to the high-rise condominiums of Myrtle Beach.
The winner of the runoff faces Democrat Ben Frasier, a black small-business man and perennial candidate who upset retired Air Force Reserve Col. Robert Burton in the primary.
Although Mr. Smith topped the June 8 primary results, Mr. Thurmond has garnered the endorsements of several of the other candidates in the race, including Carroll Campbell III, the son of another former South Carolina Republican governor who finished third in the nine-candidate contest.
Over the past two decades, an influx of northerners has turned the region's politics in a more moderate direction, but the district has still been in Republican hands for 30 years.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has not backed either candidate, but spokesman Andy Sere said some of its leaders have given money to Mr. Scott. House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia has endorsed him.
"I think everyone in our party recognizes the importance of making sure that we have leaders in the party who are representative of Americans from all walks of life and that's not limited to race," Mr. Sere said.
Merle Black, a political scientist from Emory University in Atlanta, said that usually runoffs mean fewer voters because those whose candidates are ousted earlier sometimes sit them out.
"But in this instance where you have an African-American running and you have the son of a former U.S. senator - a legendary senator - those factors may make this different," he said.