- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2005

Last year’s Senate race in South Carolina between Jim DeMint and Inez Tenenbaum, more than any other 2004 Senate contest, came down to a single issue: trade.

Mr. DeMint, a Republican congressman, and Mrs. Tenenbaum, the state’s Democratic secretary of education, battled long and hard over the issue of free trade in a state hurt by the loss of manufacturing jobs — losses that many South Carolinians blame on liberalized trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“I had been out front on free trade since I first ran for Congress,” said Mr. DeMint, 53, who campaigned aggressively on the need to embrace free trade, even if it meant losing more manufacturing jobs. “I really couldn’t hide it.”

But that was a difficult platform to campaign on, given the nearly 70,000 South Carolina jobs that have gone overseas in the past three years. On Election Day, however, Mr. DeMint won 54 percent of the vote to 44 percent for Mrs. Tenenbaum.

At the start of the race, Mr. DeMint said he realized that voters were concerned about job losses and blamed free trade. But his opponent wasted no time digging up comments he’d made and votes he’d cast in favor of free trade.

So he went straight at the issue and argued that losing manufacturing jobs to cheaper labor overseas was inevitable and that the coastal state could reap a windfall by taking advantage of the enormous import-export business out of harbors such as Charleston’s.

“The only way we’re going to survive is if we trade with the world,” said Mr. DeMint, who acknowledged that it was a tough — and truthful — sell.

On top of that, Mrs. Tenenbaum was no slouch of a candidate.

Twice elected statewide as education superintendent, Mrs. Tenenbaum was an easy fit in the conservative state. During televised debates, she was widely perceived as the winner with Mr. DeMint often on the defensive.

At the outset of the race, Mr. DeMint was expected to glide into the seat being vacated by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a Democrat. The three-term congressman from Greenville, S.C., wasn’t a household name, but his conservatism made him a favorite in the race.

In Congress, Mr. DeMint has been a leading advocate of allowing workers to invest part of their Social Security payments into private savings accounts. He also has been an advocate of abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and replacing the current tax code with a simpler one.

Prior to entering politics, Mr. DeMint graduated from the University of Tennessee, received his master’s from Clemson University and was president of the DeMint Group, a marketing research company.

Although free trade dominated much of the South Carolina race, other contentious issues also popped up.

One of the most widely reported rifts between the candidates emerged when Mr. DeMint said he supported the state Republican Party platform position that would ban homosexuals from teaching in public schools. Mrs. Tenenbaum joined Democrats nationwide in condemning Mr. DeMint. The Republican followed up by adding that pregnant women with live-in boyfriends also should be barred from teaching in the public schools.

Mr. DeMint apologized, but carefully refused to back away from his statements.

“It was a mistake,” Mr. DeMint said earlier this month in a telephone interview with The Washington Times. “It was a school board issue, and we had no business debating about it in a campaign for the U.S. Senate. It was a diversion.”

The way the issue came up — Mr. DeMint answered a question about it during a debate — suggested a lack of political discipline on Mr. DeMint’s part.

“I was sorry that I took the bait and swung at a curveball,” he said.

But Mr. DeMint, a father of four, also said, “There are legitimate values — rights and wrongs — that should not be purged” from the public school system.

“My opponent said my comments were un-American,” he said. “Every parent disagrees with that.”

Mr. DeMint said he would continue his fight to simplify the tax code and reform Social Security.

“Within three years, we’re going to have to begin to steal from the general fund to supplement Social Security,” he said. “By the end of my second term, we’ll be talking about well over $100 billion from the general fund to supplement Social Security.”

But he is also aware of the political backbone required to change Social Security.

“If you talk about change in a program that people rely on, it can be so distorted,” he said. “The astronomical increase in the costs of Social Security and Medicare is why many politicians are not talking about it.”

And as for reforming the tax code, he seems less hopeful.

“This is so potentially loaded that I don’t think Congress will ever find a consensus,” said Mr. DeMint. “There’s always going to be the appearance of winners and losers.”

But then again, he said, he did run as a free trader from South Carolina.

“I live in the former textile capital of the world,” he said. “We were able to win by going out there and telling the truth. It’s renewed my faith in the voters of my district and South Carolina.”

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