'You lie' House race on track to be among the richest ever

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 8, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Six months after U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson accused President Barack Obama of lying on national prime-time TV, the South Carolina Republican's re-election bid has broken fundraising records.

Wilson and Rob Miller, his Democratic challenger, likely have raised a total of $6 million. While updated campaign finance reports won't be filed for another month, that total would blow past the S.C. record for a U.S. House race — and is on track to challenge the richest contests ever in the country.

Both men are trying to deal with the intense attention their rematch — Wilson defeated Miller by margin of 54 percent to 46 percent in 2008 — is drawing.

Wilson has traveled more frequently outside South Carolina than he said he would in the aftermath of his Sept. 9 "You lie!" yell at Obama. At the time, Wilson said he would take only three trips outside South Carolina, declining other requests from GOP groups and candidates seeking to cash in on his newfound fame.

Miller has run a stealth campaign, holding few public events and kicking a Columbia TV crew out of a speech to Democrats.

Two weeks after his outburst, Wilson said he would limit his out-of-state trips to Michigan, Missouri and Virginia. "I love traveling the country, but I love traveling the 2nd District more."

Wilson has taken at least eight trips to New York, California, Georgia and beyond, sounding more like a sportsman on a victory lap than a contrite congressman who says Obama accepted his apology and "the incident" is over.

When Wilson campaigned in October in Michigan, trying to help Republican Tim Walberg regain the U.S. House seat that he lost, Walberg campaign's invitation had a photo of Wilson with the caption "Stand for Truth."

Wilson recently acknowledged he has taken more trips beyond South Carolina than he had intended, adding, "I've declined dozens and dozens of other invitations."

Wilson said he makes superhuman efforts to keep the trips as short as possible and to return home as quickly as possible.

"They were virtually day trips," Wilson told McClatchy. "I'd go up in the evening and come right back to the district. I was in Michigan one night; I was back in Hilton Head the next afternoon. Then, I was in Springfield, Missouri; then, I was right back in South Carolina."

Wilson spent three days on at least one trip — to the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, Calif., in mid-November, addressing conservative activists.

The tab for that trip came to $2,668.99, paid for by the Young America's Foundation, which runs the Reagan Ranch.

"I got to visit the actual Rancho del Cielo," Wilson said. "It's actually being preserved just as President and Mrs. Reagan left it, ... including their clothes in the closet, their books on the shelf and a baseball cap on the hook, the chain saws in the garage and the riding lawn mower that they rode.

"Then I got to see the fence post that President Reagan put together, and also a dock he built in a little lake. It was just awesome."

While Wilson has had a high profile, Miller has been almost invisible.

Miller, an Iraq War vet, says he regularly meets with people in the 2nd District. He describes those residents as "local business leaders" or "community leaders" or "church leaders." Miller, though, declines to identify them.

"We're building our campaign from the ground up," Miller said Thursday. "When this campaign truly gets going, we'll let you know."

Miller's approach sounds more like a soldier's strategy than a politician's plan.

"We have to shape the battlefield," he said. "I am not going to engage Congressman Wilson at the time and place of his choosing. I am not going to engage the South Carolina Republican Party at the time and place of its choosing. We will lay the foundation ... and then we will begin to roll out the Republicans, Democrats and independents who support us."

Miller said he didn't want to name his supporters because many are beholden to Wilson as their representative in Washington.

"Right now, this early in the campaign, I'm unwilling to really put these small-business owners and other supporters out on a limb," Miller said. "Right now, Congressman Wilson is the sitting congressman."

Miller's campaign manager, Lindsay Zoeller, said many of the unidentified supporters eventually will sign endorsement cards.

Miller said his supporters go well beyond Democrats.

"We did a private event in Beaufort a few weeks ago," he said. "We had 45 people attend. Fifteen of them were Republicans."

Miller has held some public events, though none of the scale of Wilson's big town-hall rallies.

In recent weeks, Miller has been introduced to the congregation at Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia, had coffee with folks at a Starbucks in Bluffton and joined barbecue-lovers for lunch at Duke's in Ridgeland.

However, another Miller appearance ended in controversy.

Miller spoke to about 50 people at a Feb. 18 dinner hosted by the Irmo Democratic Club at Zorba's Greek Restaurant.

WIS-TV reported that night that Miller had asked its camera crew to leave because he didn't want his speech to be videotaped.

Within 24 hours, the National Republican Campaign Committee had e-mailed political reporters nationwide a release chortling, "Liberal Yes-Man Rob Miller kicks reporter out of event."

Miller denied that claim Thursday. "I've never ejected anybody from any campaign event, and my staff has never ejected anybody from any campaign event."

WIS-TV anchor Judi Gatson, who reported the incident, said Miller issued the same denial in an interview Sunday.

However, e-mails sent the night of Miller's talk and the next day, obtained by McClatchy, contradict Miller.

At midnight, just a few hours after the event, Bill Salter, treasurer of the Irmo club, sent an apologetic e-mail to Gatson.

"I was unaware that the (Miller) campaign wouldn't allow the taping of Mr. Miller's speech until they complained," Salter wrote. "I personally disagree with this stance."

The next day, WIS executive producer Jason Old sent an e-mail to colleagues, saying he had received an apology from Jim Nelson, president of the Irmo club. "He said he tried to talk Rob Miller's people into letting us record the speech."

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