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Parties poised to lock horns in S.C. political arena

Fighting between the state's two political parties might soon get more saucy.

Dick Harpootlian, a former state Democratic Party chairman known for his sometimes politically incorrect flamethrowing, said this week he will run to lead the state's limping Democrats.

Once South Carolina's dominant political party, Democrats lost one of two S.C. congressional seats they held in November. They also lost the last statewide elected post that they held, state superintendent of education.

Harpootlian, state party chairman from 1998 to 2003, when South Carolina elected its last Democratic governor, Jim Hodges, is the second Democrat to announce he will seek the chairmanship at the state convention in Columbia on April 30. Marion County Democratic Party chairman Lee Walter Jenkins announced last month that he will seek the post.

The state Republican Party will host its annual convention May 7 in Columbia and choose a new leader from four contenders.

Harpootlian, a Columbia attorney, said he has the backing of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn as well as Democratic gubernatorial nominee Vincent Sheheen, who lost in November's election to Nikki Haley, a Republican.

"I welcome his candidacy," Clyburn said in a statement Friday. "He is a proven commodity - an articulate spokesperson and prolific fundraiser."

If elected, Harpootlian said, his goal will be to highlight that Republicans are in charge of state government and, as he sees it, making a mess of it. He said he will also work to rebuild the state party through intense fundraising and recruiting a bench of likely Democratic candidates.

"We Democrats have done a terrible job of defining Republicans as the party that's in control," said Harpootlian, who has vowed that, if he wins, he will serve one two-year term.

"If you're dissatisfied with [state] government, you're dissatisfied with the Republicans. They've run it for the better part of a decade. If you want to continue to live in the state that ranks 50th in education but first in gonorrhea, then vote for them [Republicans] again in two years."

(South Carolina ranked third among the states in gonorrhea rates in 2009, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Its educational ranking varies, depending on the standard applied.)

Republicans, who hold all nine statewide offices and majorities in both the Senate and the House, are unfazed by Harpootlian's candidacy.

"Those kinds of comments are Dick Harpootlian in a nutshell - long on pithy one-liners and short on ideas," said Joel Sawyer, director of the S.C. Republican Party.

"At the end of the day, it doesn't matter all that much [who is the Democratic Party chairman], but Mr. Harpootlian certainly gives us more ammunition than the others do," Sawyer said. "He's made a career as a trial lawyer leeching off of businesses and state government. He represents everything that's wrong with the Democratic Party. We may endorse him."

The state Republican Party's four announced candidates are:

Stephen Brown, former chairman of the Greenville County Republican Party and an attorney

Chad Connelly, Newberry County's Republican Party chairman and businessman/motivational speaker

Patrick Haddon, current Greenville County Republican Party chairman and business owner

Ben Kinlaw, chairman of the Barnwell County Republican Party and retired textile executive