Republican state Sen. Larry Grooms swept into South Carolina politics in 1997 by capturing a safely Democratic seat in coastal Berkeley County, unexpectedly ousting an established black lawmaker in the process.
A dozen years later, Grooms, dubbed by some as "the most conservative lawmaker in the General Assembly," hopes to surprise again by winning the 2010 governor's race.
If Grooms is successful, it would come in a year Democrats are thought to have their best opportunity of taking back the Governor's Mansion since Jim Hodges' upset victory in 2002.
"I've got some name identification in the Lowcountry, but outside of that, nobody knows who I am," said an undaunted Grooms, who heads the key Senate Transportation Committee.
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Three Republicans - U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, state Attorney General Henry McMaster and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer - cast longer shadows in the 2010 race than Grooms, who in speeches around the state has taken to drawing distinctions between Republicans and "conservatives."
Rep. Nikki Haley of Lexington also holds a significant fundraising advantage over Grooms.
Grooms notes that the past two Republican governors had to overcome not being known statewide.
"When David Beasley ran, he had virtually no name identification statewide," Grooms said. "Mark Sanford - he had the same challenge. He had name ID within his congressional district, but not statewide, and I'd have the same challenge."
A CONSERVATIVE'S CONSERVATIVE
Grooms is the leader of a group of 12 or so Republican senators who seek to restrict abortion, block any restriction on guns, re-enforce the state's 10th Amendment right to sovereignty and curb illegal immigration.
"He's a transparent person," said fellow Republican Sen. Kevin Bryant of Anderson. "What you see with Larry is what you get."
Bryant, who says he sees eye to eye with Grooms on most issues, has introduced the Lowcountry lawmaker to various groups in the Upstate so Grooms could meet people and tell them his story.
"When folks sit down and have a conversation with Larry, they see how smart he is, how sincere he is and how very genuine he is," Bryant said.
Deeply religious, Grooms is a deacon at First Baptist Church in St. Stephens. His biographical entry in the 2009 South Carolina Legislative Manual makes his religious convictions clear: "Christian, Saved by Grace," the entry reads.
On fiscal matters, Grooms, who was among the 75,000 who attended the Tea Party protest rally last weekend in Washington, relentlessly opposed the Obama administration's federal stimulus program last spring.
He sometimes speaks in apocalyptic terms about the nation's future.
"I think we're at a crossroads in this nation," Grooms said. "I think we are trending toward socialism, and it really scares me."
SOME DISSENSION, SUPPORT
When Grooms, a Bonneau businessman, stepped into the Legislature in 1997, he unseated former Sen. Dewitt Williams of St. Stephens.
Grooms, who represents all of Berkeley and portions of Colleton, Charleston and Dorchester counties, benefited from a court ruling that changed the entire state's redistricting, with the exception of one county.
Williams, who previously had served six terms in the House, was in the first year of a four-year Senate term when the ruling came down, handing Grooms a subsequent narrow victory in a special election.
Though it's unclear if redistricting is the sole factor in Grooms' victory, which even Williams said is unlikely, Williams remains bitter.
"He's a crook," said Williams, who will turn 90 next month, "and I don't mind saying so."
Williams contends Grooms was involved in deal-making under the court-ordered redrawn district lines, though he offered no proof. In Grooms' re-election last year, he ran unopposed in a district that has moved from roughly 52 percent Democrat to 70 percent Republican now.
Melissa Watson, first vice chairwoman of the Berkeley County Democratic Party, said she would love to see a fellow county resident in the governor's office, though she doesn't think it ought to be Grooms, whom she says is an ideologue.
"I don't see him being able to grab broad support, I don't see him working for all the people of South Carolina and I don't see him trying to cross party lines," Watson said. "He (wouldn't) feel accountable to me."
Oran Smith, president and executive director of the South Carolina Family Council and a Clemson University alum, like Grooms, said the lawmaker always has appreciated his organization's input.
"I've found him to be very passionate and very knowledgeable," said Smith, who has collaborated with Grooms on various legislation, including a school curriculum that studies the Bible as a literary and historical document and bills that define marriage as a union between a woman and a man.
"He's probably one of our real champions in the South Carolina Senate," Smith said of Grooms.
On the stump, Grooms said he will push three issues with a 100-day plan to take effect if he wins the governorship.
"Ports, power and permitting," according to Grooms, is the formula necessary to move the state forward and preserve a good standard of living.
Grooms said the state port at Charleston has begun a turnaround that must be completed for the state to compete with other major East Coast ports in New York and Virginia.
He said the state has to invest in new electrical power production, meaning coal plants in the short term, to attract industry and continue residential supplies.
Grooms, who started his business by opening a convenience store, also said the state's permitting process for everything from businesses and beyond is too long, and he plans to fix some of that.
"I'm somewhat of a student of history, and I know that what we have doesn't last forever, and someday this democracy as we know it will cease to exist," Grooms said. "I just don't want it to happen under my watch."