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S.C.'s 5th District: The GOP's Best Shot at Spratt?

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- After a quick lunch today at Willy's, I made my way to a meeting with state Rep. Ralph Norman (R) -- the candidate being touted as Republicans' best chance in years of ousting Rep. John Spratt (D) in the 5th District.

National Republicans are pulling out all the stops for Norman. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove will be in South Carolina tomorrow to raise campaign cash for Norman, and Vice President Dick Cheney is scheduled to do a fundraising event next month in Rock Hill.

Despite an overall national climate that is not favorable for Republicans, Norman said he likes where he stands because "people want change. People don't want your typical politicians."

Norman, 52, is a new to elected office having run only one previous race -- a 2004 open state House contest where he took 52 percent of the vote in the Republican primary and was unopposed in the general election. Despite his rookie status, Norman has one major advantage over past GOP candidates who challenged Spratt: He (like Spratt) hails from York County -- the fastest growing area of the sprawling district. York's population, Norman said, has been growing steadily over the past decade with "conservative voters moving in primarily for jobs and, hand in hand with that, quality of life."

The winning formula for Norman, to hear several Republicans tell it, is to raise enough money to get on Charlotte (N.C.) television, which reaches into York, and thereby maximize Republican turnout. At the end of 2005, he had more than $400,000 in the bank, compared to the $736,000 Spratt had in his campaign warchest.

Although the low-key Norman is a strong candidate on paper, he faces several major hurdles in trying to oust Spratt, who has held the seat since 1982. First, he must get by former teacher Park Gillespie in the Republican primary. Gillespie, who graduated from Bob Jones University, was selected as the "American Candidate" in a Showtime reality show of the same name in 2004. So far, his real-life candidacy has been less successful as Gillespie had just $24,000 in the bank at the end of 2005.

The second major challenge for Norman is raising his name identification in a district that spans 14 counties and four different media markets. Spratt is a known commodity throughout the 5th, a presence that has allowed him to win reelection time and time again in spite of the clear Republican lean of the district. (President Bush carried it by 15 points in 2004.) Norman insisted that his blueprint for beating defeat Spratt is clear: "You lay out his record as best you can with the funds you have," he said, saying that on a variety of spending issues Spratt has staked out a liberal position.

While Norman is generally well-thought of by national Republicans, there is some grumbling in GOP circles that he has moved too slowly in hiring a professional campaign team. Norman has now brought on Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies as his pollster and Sonny Scott of Anthem Media as his media consultant.

Norman represents Spratt's most serious challenge since the mid 1990s when the Democrat won reelection with 52 percent (1994) and 54 percent (1996) of the vote. But if Spratt could hold this GOP-tilting seat in a Republican tidal wave election like 1994, he seems likely to hold it again in 2006.

Spratt has made no secret that he is considering retirement in the not-too-distant future, however, and if he beats Norman in a close contest this fall he may decide to make the 110th Congress his last. In that event, Norman would begin an open-seat race in 2008 as the early favorite.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 23, 2006; 5:14 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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