COLUMBIA, S.C. – Former Gov. David Beasley (search) stoked the fires of his political career Tuesday, advancing to a runoff against U.S. Rep. Jim DeMint (search) in the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (search).
With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Beasley held 37 percent of the vote. DeMint got 26 percent and held on in the face of a tough challenge from Charleston developer Thomas Ravenel, who followed closely with 25 percent.
Fewer than 5,000 votes separated second and third place.
"We started in this race last and we ended up in this race first," Beasley said. "We're prepared to go head to head with either."
DeMint said he was ready to face Beasley in the June 22 runoff. "Mission one is accomplished. We're in the playoffs," he said.
Ravenel, a Charleston multimillionaire who financed his own campaign, had hoped to knock DeMint out of the running but was poised to join his campaign instead to defeat Beasley.
"Congressman Jim DeMint — and I'm not conceding to him yet — but here's a man who like myself ran on ideas. He's a fabulous individual," Ravenel said as the final votes were counted.
Ravenel had looked forward to a personal matchup with Beasley — who beat Ravenel's father, state senator and former Congressman Arthur Ravenel, a decade ago in the GOP gubernatorial primary.
In unofficial results, state Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum (search) won the Democratic nomination. She faced Ben Frasier, a former police officer and perennial candidate.
Tenenbaum said her light primary opposition allowed her to conserve her resources and organize her campaign to face the Republican nominee.
"This is going to be a horse race no matter who is chosen, and we know that, so we are fully poised to run a very competitive race for November," she said.
The Republicans used pricey television ads to tout their conservative agendas, stressing their anti-abortion stances and their support for President Bush — a good bet in the home state of Christian Coalition president Roberta Combs and where 58 percent of the vote went to Bush in 2000.
Tenenbaum said she doesn't think it will be hard to catch up and get the exposure she needs with voters.
"While we have not been doing forums and debates, I certainly have been meeting with people and going around the state talking to various people," Tenenbaum said.
Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said is wasn't a surprise voter turnout was about 22 percent below the record 385,000 voters who lined up at the polls in June 2002.
Huffmon said voters can expect candidates to turn up the heat for the runoff in two weeks.
"It'll get a little louder and a little brasher," he said. "DeMint is still vulnerable on the trade issue."
Beasley is going to point out that as governor he created jobs and that "DeMint is trying to send the jobs overseas," Huffmon said.
South Carolinians have been returned Hollings to Washington every six years since he first arrived 1966. This is the first time since then that his seat has come open.
With such a tight race, GOP candidates campaigned for last-minute votes in the days leading up to Tuesday's primary.
The candidates focused on the Republican-rich Upstate, which has been DeMint's turf in Congress for three terms. Another battleground was the Lowcountry, where Ravenel and his rival Charlie Condon, a former state attorney general, live.
Condon conceded the race to his rivals with unofficial results showing him with 9 percent. Long shots Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride had 2 percent, and Bluffton businesswoman Orly Benny Davis got 1 percent, or fewer than 2,000 votes.
"The numbers aren't there for us tonight," Condon said at his campaign party in Charleston. "We talked about some really important issues facing South Carolina and this country."
Condon said he would consult with his supporters to determine who he might support in the runoff.
Beasley's political career burned out in his 1998 re-election bid with a loss to Democrat Jim Hodges.
Beasley was knocked out of office after he had called for the removal of the Confederate flag from atop 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.
Although political experts say it's hard for an ousted governor to make comeback, Beasley said, "I think we've got a great chance and we're going to run like we're the underdog."
Those issues were still on the minds of some voters Tuesday.
Charles Williams, 70, of Simpsonville cast his vote for Beasley. "He took a lot of undeserved heat" when he was governor, Williams said.
"I think we've got a great chance and we're going to run like we're the underdog," Beasley said.