The first time U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett flew in an airplane, he jumped out - a skinny 20-year-old Citadel cadet, plunging toward the ground and trusting the static line to hold and open his parachute.
He's come a long way.
These days, Barrett, who turns 49 today, keeps his seat as he flies across the state in small private planes, owned by campaign supporters. He's trusting his message of job creation will resonate with S.C. Republican voters who, he hopes, will choose him as the GOP nominee for governor.
Thus far, the former Army captain and former owner of a Westminster furniture store is leading in the Republican money race. With more than $1.5 million in cash on hand from the more than $2 million he's raised so far , he's prepped to get on TV early and stay there.
On a recent two-day whirlwind tour of the state, Barrett's folksy, fundraising appeal was on full display.
"Come on in, guys," Barrett called to a group of Greenville construction company employees, eager to get a group photo with the congressman.
"I get 25 bucks a head. You know that?" he jokes.
Luke Byars, Barrett's campaign manager and veteran of 50 campaigns, gives a tight-lipped, knowing smile. "Always fundraising."
MAKING A NAME
Barrett is likely to need every penny.
He has less name recognition outside of his 3rd Congressional District, which winds through western South Carolina from Easley to Aiken, than some of his opponents.
Team Barrett hopes to gain the attention of primary voters, far more familiar with GOP rivals Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and Attorney General Henry McMaster. Those veteran Republican both have been elected twice to statewide office.
S.C. political consultants say Barrett and state Rep. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, are tied in name recognition, lagging both Bauer and McMaster.
Opinions are split on whether Barrett or Haley can launch an offensive to upset a McMaster/Bauer showdown.
Barrett's edge: cash.
"Short of an actual vote, cash is the best thing for a candidate to have," said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor and pollster at Winthrop University "Money is hugely important, especially for a candidate like Barrett who plans to get semi-hammered by a part of the (Republican) party."
Once on TV, Barrett is likely to tout the two accomplishments he says he's most proud of during his six years at the S.C. State House and eight years in Congress:
- Leading a ban on partial-birth abortions while a state representative.
Barrett wears his faith on his sleeve, repeatedly winning endorsements from conservative groups including the National Right to Life Committee.
"This is a talent the Lord has given me," Barrett said of his decision to enter politics in the early '90s. "I felt like it was a calling. I feel like I'm exactly where he wants me to be."
- Helping to advance nuclear energy during his time in Congress. The power source is key to not only South Carolina's economic recovery but its future prosperity, he said.
But while millions of federal stimulus dollars have flowed to Aiken's Savannah River Site to create jobs, Barrett said he never considered backing the Obama Administration's stimulus package.
"It would have been a short-term solution for a long-term problem," he said.
Rivals give Barrett little credit for voting "no" on President Barack Obama's stimulus package, instead, focusing on his TARP vote.
In 2008, Barrett voted in favor of $700 billion, Bush administration-backed Troubled Asset Relief Program bailout for AIG, Citigroup and other financial institutions.
Political observers think the vote could be Barrett's Achilles' heel.
That spring, an angry crowd booed Barrett at a Greenville tea party event. Some members of the state's tea party, a political movement that sprang up as a response to Obama and his policies, say they will hold Barrett's feet to the fire on primary day.
"The tea partiers have set a gun site on him," Huffmon said. "He broke the sacred rule of fiscal conservatism in their mind, 'Thou shall not grow government spending.'"
Barrett defends his vote. "I made the best decision with the information I had at the time," he said.
B.J. Boling, Barrett's communications director, added: "There were multiple businesses in South Carolina, major employers, that called him and said, 'If something isn't done today, we'll go out of business tomorrow.'"
Boling declined to name the businesses that approached Barrett.
Asked whether Barrett would have voted differently knowing what he knows now, Boling would not say. "He's not going to play hypotheticals," he said.
What's unclear is whether tea party members will organize against Barrett and turn out to vote on primary day.
"We don't know yet (how many will turn out) since there hasn't been a primary since the movement started," said Joel Sawyer, spokesman for the state Republican Party, which has opened a line of communication with tea party groups around the state.
Barrett also will have to defend his 2009 attendance record. The Westminster native missed 337 votes, nearly 35 percent of those held, more than any other member of Congress. He cast 634 votes.
Barrett's spokeswoman said the absences were a result of trying to balance his congressional duties with mounting a run for governor.
"That's more likely to hurt him than the TARP vote," Huffmon predicted.
Barry Wynn, former chairman of the state GOP, makes his case for Barrett simply - business sense.
"If I were going to ask someone to run my business and I looked at the cast of (gubernatorial) characters out there, it would be Gresham," Wynn said. "He's got the knowledge and the background and the personality."
Barrett is wooing the business community as his first step in building statewide support.
Using down-home smiles, he travels to businesses across the state, discussing new incentives to attract industry to South Carolina, preparing the state's workforce for high-tech jobs and overhauling the tax code.
"If you had a garden hose that's been repaired as many times as our tax code, I think you'd throw it out," Barrett told a crowd of West Columbia workers at a recent business round table.
Some heads in the group nod.
Wynn said voters no longer trust elected leaders. But he's confident Barrett's approach can change minds.
"Voters want to rebuild that trust," Wynn said. "They would like to see a governor who would consider it part of his mission to rebuild trust, to be truthful, decisive and bring us all together.
"Gresham can do that."
Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.