CHARLESTON - U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint said fellow senators are "playing politics" in blocking his colleague's efforts to secure a $400,000 earmark to study the deepening of Charleston Harbor.

DeMint, R-S.C., made several appearances in Charleston on Friday, including a meeting at the Charleston Chamber of Commerce in which business leaders emphasized the importance of the project. DeMint stopped seeking earmarks a few years ago.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has been working to get the earmark added -- particularly since other states with competing ports have secured earmarks to proceed with harbor-deepening projects.

"My not asking for an earmark had nothing to do with us not getting it.

They're just playing politics. It could be because Lindsey and I have both voted against some of the big bloated spending bills," DeMint said. "The fact that we're even having to deal with this shows you how broken the system is."

DeMint said if a bill emerges with earmarks for other ports but not Charleston's, "I'm going to do everything I can to stop the whole bill."

Whitemarsh "Whit" Smith III, president of the Charleston Branch Pilots Association and a member of the State Ports Authority's Board of Directors, met with DeMint on another topic Friday but said he wished the state's delegation would unite behind the harbor-deepening.

The widening of the Panama Canal is expected to lead to ever larger ships calling on East Coast ports, and if efforts to deepen Charleston's harbor get bogged down, then it would lose its competitive edge.

"It seems like other delegations on the East Coast have put in their funding," Smith said. "It would be a shame for us to lose another year in the process, waiting to come up with the $400,000."

DeMint vowed to keep working on deepening the harbor, including pursuing the possibility of using private money -- which later would be reimbursed by Congress -- to continue environmental studies. "That's an angle we're working on -- to see if that's possible," he said.

During an address to the National Federation of Republican Women in North Charleston, DeMint detailed his work on behalf of conservative candidates in other states.

He said his Senate Conservative Fund might pump $5 million into the coffers of conservative candidates, such as Senate hopefuls Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Marco Rubio in Florida.

Meanwhile, DeMint said he thinks it's good that his Democratic opponent Alvin Greene, whose arrest on a pornography charge became public knowledge shortly after his unexpected June 8 primary win, has received more national media attention than any other House or Senate candidate in the country.

"In a year when the best-known candidates are losing, I think that helps me on the ballot," he said.

However, DeMint declined to talk about Greene -- or Tom Clements, who also is on the Nov. 2 Senate ballot as a Green Party candidate. At least two others have launched write-in campaigns.

"I've got a couple of opponents, and I'm not going to say anything about either one of them," DeMint said. "I'm going to run my campaign the same way I would have anyway, talk about my vision for the future and how we need to turn the country around. I frankly think most of my opponents are in the Congress and the White House right now. That's where my fight is."

When he returns to Washington, DeMint said he expects to play defense the rest of the year, fighting spending bills, a cap and trade energy bill and proposals to raise taxes.

"People talk about gridlock like it's bad," he said, "but I think people who create the jobs would appreciate a little gridlock in Washington."