Ports issue roils GOP challenger of Spratt

The proposal by House Republican leaders to stop Dubai Ports World from operating six U.S. ports has put them at odds with Ralph Norman, a Republican challenger in South Carolina who favors a 45-day delay supported by the White House.

Norman said yesterday that he did not know enough about the issue to say how he would vote, if he had the chance, for a proposed GOP amendment to an emergency supplemental spending bill. The amendment would kill the deal and supersede the Bush administration’s 45-day investigatory period.

“I don’t know,” he said. “One, I trust George Bush implicitly with national security. I agree with his 45-day study period that he has agreed to. … That makes sense. The public is outraged because they did not have all the facts, so the [delay] would make sure it’s all in the best interest of the country. I simply don’t have the information” to decide.

Norman, a South Carolina state legislator, told a local newspaper 10 days ago that he would stay with the deal, based on what he knew about it.

Meanwhile, his opponent in November, Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), said in statement yesterday that he would vote to block the deal.

Democrats sought to paint Norman as out of touch with his district and to solidify Spratt’s standing in the marginally Republican 5th District.

“I think the expectation here should be that millions of dollars are going to be spent making sure that South Carolinians know that Ralph Norman thinks it is a good idea to have Middle Eastern countries controlling the ports of South Carolina,” said a Democratic campaign strategist familiar with the race.

The GOP establishment in Washington is heavily vested in Norman’s campaign. Vice President Cheney is expected to host a fundraiser in South Carolina next week and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), both potential presidential candidates, have raised money for him.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and the chief sponsor of the amendment to kill the ports deal, raised money for Norman last week when he huddled with GOP advisers in Washington.

While the deal would not affect South Carolina’s ports in Charleston, Savannah and Wilmington, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) defended Norman’s position, saying that he, too, favors the 45-day delay but that he would “abide by the initiatives” of GOP leaders.

Wilson, who never speaks ill of fellow Republicans, issued a subtle warning to candidates running for Congress: “[They] need to know that people are very, very concerned,” he said.

Every election year, Republicans talk about beating Spratt the way Democrats talk about defeating Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) — the election season starts with high hopes and trash talk, but in November the incumbent handily wins.

An aide to former Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) said, “Republicans are charging hard, but you would almost have to have a reason to get rid of him at this point. The guy is as honest as the day is long, and he is in tune with his district.”

Spratt ran unopposed in 2004 and 2002, but faced tough races in 1994 and 1996. Still, Democrats say that when the 12th-term Democrat retires, the district, which President Bush won with 57 percent of the vote in 2004, probably will be captured by a Republican.