COLUMBIA, S.C. – In a state where people spend their weekends re-enacting what happened in 1865, former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley (search) is hoping voters can forget what went on just a few years ago.
In 1998, Beasley lost his re-election bid after he pushed to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse dome. Now he is running for the Republican nomination to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (search), whose seat is up for grabs for the first time in nearly 40 years.
While Beasley, 47, enjoys a clear lead over the five other Republicans heading into Tuesday's primary, political observers question whether the one-term governor can shake his past.
A runoff for the GOP nomination appears unavoidable. And if Beasley survives a runoff, he is expected to face a promising, conservative Democrat in the fall: state Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum.
"In modern American history, a governor who is turned out of office usually does not gain high office again," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who specializes in presidential and Southern politics.
South Carolina is one of five Southern states where Democrats are leaving office. And despite the long-term Republican trend across the South, the Democrats are widely thought to have a fighting chance of holding on to those seats in November.
Beasley met his downfall after he called for the removal of the Civil War banner from the Statehouse dome and attacked the state's video gambling industry. The flag eventually came down and video poker was outlawed, but only after Beasley lost.
"I'm hopeful people are looking for a leader that will stand for what is right regardless of the political consequences," he said recently.
Beasley's primary opponents include Jim DeMint, a three-term congressman; Thomas Ravenel, a wealthy son of an ex-congressman; and Charlie Condon, a former state attorney general.
The Republicans see South Carolina as a key battleground in their effort to widen their 51-48 majority in the Senate.
The South Carolina GOP already controls the governor's office, the Legislature and four of the six congressional seats. Republican Lindsey Graham handily won the state's other Senate seat two years ago when Strom Thurmond retired.
However, if Beasley emerges as the GOP nominee, political observers say Tenenbaum has a pretty good chance of winning. Sabato said history is not easily forgotten in South Carolina, and some people may dislike Beasley so much that they will vote for Tenenbaum.
Already, the anti-Beasley crowd that showed up at his campaign events in 1998 with Confederate flags and "Dump Beasley" bumper stickers on their cars and trucks has a new sticker that reads: "Dump Beasley Again."
Since his defeat, Beasley has taught at Harvard University, done missionary work and received a Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum for his efforts to move the Confederate flag.
With Hollings retiring, Beasley said he saw the chance to give South Carolina a second Republican Senate seat.
"It's been great to be back in the saddle," he said. "I love fighting on issues. I love causes."
North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana also have Democratic senators giving up their seats.
"All these Southern Senate seats are competitive. They're not foregone victories for Republicans," said Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University and an expert on Southern politics.
On the other hand, President Bush's re-election bid will stir up lots of support and cash for the Republicans in South Carolina. The president got 58 percent of the South Carolina vote last time around.
Tenenbaum hopes her conservatism on some issues defuses her opponent's early attempts to paint the 53-year-old Georgia native as a liberal. She favors the death penalty, supports a ban on gay marriage and agreed with Bush on the decision to invade Iraq.
"This is not a Republican state or a Democratic state. It's a state of independent voters," Tenenbaum said. "The state is tired of partisan politics, and they're going to vote for who they trust."