COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Political newcomer Robert Cunningham accused the state Republican Party Tuesday of treating him like a leper in his bid to unseat five-term incumbent Sen. Strom Thurmond.
'Thurmond is a follower, not a leader,' said Cunningham, an ex-CIA agent who now lives in Pawleys Island. 'Whether he is that strong or not, nobody knows. Nobody has challenged him for 18 years.'
If state GOP leaders had their way, Thurmond would have no challenger this year, either. Party officials first tried to talk Cunningham out of running, then organized a drive to have Thurmond nominated without a primary.
Thurmond nixed that idea, but Cunningham said the whole affair damaged the senator.
Cunningham announced plans to challenge Thurmond earlier this year and said he attended his first meeting with Republican Party officials in Florence last month.
'Everybody treated me like I was a leper,' he said. 'But they are going to be surprised. People forget that Thurmond has a bad track record, that he used to be known as a hanging judge and as a racist.'
Thurmond was first elected to the Senate in 1954 as a write-in candidate and now serves as its president pro tem and Judiciary Committee chairman. His supporters have been raising money for more than year to scare away potential opponents.
Cunningham lacks both money and organization, but apparently doesn't scare easily. 'Thurmond has crushed all oppostion in the past, but I don't think he'll crush me,' he said.
'I don't think I'm that much of a longshot. I'm getting a lot of encouragement,' he said.
The 64-year-old Cunningham is a lifelong Republican who criticizes what he sees as the party's shift to the right.
'I think the party has lost its thrust. It's tied too much to conservative ideas,' Cunningham said. 'We need to bring the people together.'
At the same time, Cunningham said he entered the race for one reason -- to fight for a more aggressive U.S. policy in combating the Soviets. He wants U.S. intelligence forces to encourage revolt in Soviet block countries, and believes the FBI should be placed under the National Security Council and used to ferret out Soviet spies in this country.
Cunningham worked for the CIA in Europe from 1952 until 1964, when he became general manager of the Rome Daily American, an English-language newspaper he later bought. He retired to the South Carolina coast in 1972.