A recent gaffe has thrown a new curve into the race for the chairmanship of South Carolina Democrats -- a race some consider a fight for the soul of the state's struggling minority party.

Dick Harpootlian, a former state party chairman and outspoken Columbia lawyer, faces Phil Noble, a Charleston businessman and son of a Presbyterian minister, and Lee Walter Jenkins, party chairman in Marion County.

State Democrats will convene Saturday in Columbia to pick one as their new leader -- a job that's part cheerleader, part fundraiser and part strategist. Success is measured by how many wins the party chalks up.

Before the hopefuls arrived Wednesday in North Charleston to meet with local Democrats, the race took a twist after Harpootlian earlier apologized for using the word "retard" on a recent webcast.

During last weeks' Pub Politics episode, Harpootlian blasted legislation that would bar high school dropouts from having a driver's license, adding, "What retard introduced that?"

Harpootlian said he offered his apology to Bruce Coats, president of the Special Olympics of South Carolina.

"In the heat of battle we say things that unintentionally offend people," he said, adding that he was offended by the idea of taking away dropouts' ability to drive to and from a job. "In the heat of anger, I used a word that was absolutely inappropriate."

Instead of using the word "retard," he said, "I should have said that they were callous, stupid, ignorant and not worthy of public office."

Noble seized on his opponent's gaffe.

"I've heard over and over again, we've had Republicans embarrass us for years now in the national media, and just as sure as the sun rises and sets, Dick is going to do it again and again and again," Noble said. "He did it last week. Why do we want as chairman someone who insults the very people we need to build this party? Democrats are for standing up for these folks, not attacking them."

Harpootlian has a reputation for crossing the rhetorical line, such as when he called U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham "light in the loafers," a quip that caused Graham's 2002 Democratic opponent, Alex Sanders, to pass along word that he would quit the race if Harpootlian kept it up.

Harpootlian said Wednesday he's misused the word "retard" before, specifically when he referred to Republican Gov. David Beasley and former Rep. Bob Inglis as "tard and retard."

"I did apologize to all the retarded people for comparing them to Beasley and Inglis," he said.

Harpootlian said being quotable is key to rebuilding a party that recently lost every statewide election and five of six congressional races.

"How do you penetrate the fog of stupidity? Hyperbole, or very pointed sharp comments are the only way to get through that," he said. "I've been very effective in doing that not only as chair of a political party or a candidate but as a trial lawyer. You don't see effective communicators speaking in paragraphs. They speak in sharp terms."

Noble, who has painted the race as a fight between the party's grassroots, which he represents, and its Columbia insiders, said, "A snappy quote is not a plan to win."

He has laid out a five-point plan, one that Harpootlian mocked on the Pub Politics webcast. "Phil has a five-point plan, a 10-point plan, a 15-point plan, 20-point plan," Harpootlian said. "I've got a one-point plan: Kick their (expletive)."

Harpootlian said the chairman's most important job is to raise money to give Democrats the means to win, and raising money is easier when the party's base is enthusiastic. "The way you do that is you give the perception that you're going to win," he said.

Meanwhile, Noble also is not above coming up with his own one-liners, such as these: "Essentially Dick's campaign comes down to 'Throw the Rascals In,'" and "I've said from the beginning that we need to reform our party to start winning again. How's Dick going to do that when he can't even reform his own mouth?"