COLUMBIA -- This year's state GOP convention had the feel of a group therapy session, as beleaguered Republicans sought to reassure each other in preparation for what many fear could be a tough election season.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell gave a pep talk of sorts, reminding listeners they can take solace in at least one thing: "As hard as this year is, when the dust settles, Republicans will still be in control of government in South Carolina," he said.
The state convention attracted about 800 people, a smaller crowd than in past years. Some Republican candidates offered their own theories for why the GOP brand has weakened. Polls show President Bush with low approval ratings, and the party has lost a number of Congressional seats once considered safe.
"The problem with the product is that many Republicans have forgotten our core ideals," said Paul Norris, running against Rep. Henry Brown. "The Republican Party does not have as many strong leaders as it once had. If the party does not begin to make changes, the Democrats are going to do it for us."
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Last year, the crowd booed U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham when he started talking about immigration reform. Graham received polite, if muted, applause during his speech on Saturday.
The whoops and hollers were saved for U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, who called on his party to continue fighting the culture wars by standing up against gay marriage and pornography.
Buddy Witherspoon, Graham's Republican challenger, returned the focus to illegal immigration.
"If you want to hear this message in English, press one. If you want to hear this message in Spanish, press two," joked Witherspoon, before adding that he's the only candidate in the field who is married.
"Folks, we're at a crossroads," said Phil Black, a candidate challenging Rep. Joe Wilson in the June 10 primary. "I've never seen this in my life where we are today. What happened? We have academia, and we have greed. Those two things are not Christian-like."
The most memorable zingers came from U.S. House candidate Nancy Harrelson.
"I know many of y'all think I'm crazy for running against Jim Clyburn, the third most powerful Democrat in the land," said Harrelson. "But frankly, I think it's Jim Clyburn that's crazy. Think of me as Moses. I'm here to deliver you to the Promised Land."
The audience gave Harrelson a big ovation, if only because she offered some much-needed spirit during a challenging year.