EDISTO ISLAND S.C. (Reuters) - When independent U.S. Senate candidate Thomas Ravenel made a case for voters choosing him over Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham this month, only a few dozen people showed up at his 19th-century home on a South Carolina island to listen.
But millions may end up seeing the speech on national television due to an unusual twist in Ravenel's candidacy - his role on Bravo's "Southern Charm" reality show.
The wealthy real estate developer's long-shot bid to topple Graham is being filmed for the second season of the series, which follows the hard-partying lives of Ravenel and five other Charleston socialites and is scheduled to air next year.
In an era when the lives of professional athletes, real estate agents and housewives play out before cameras, Ravenel's campaign appears to be the first in a major race to pair politics with reality TV.
The show has raised his profile, drawing an average audience of nearly 1.3 million viewers per episode last spring, and it may give him a wide platform to trumpet his message of limited government, if not in time to help him in the November election.
The polo-playing son of a former U.S. congressman says reality TV is a mixed blessing. Filming is time consuming and the show has triggered criticism that he is not a serious candidate.
"They are dead wrong," Ravenel, 52, said of his doubters. "This is about changing the course of the country and challenging the political establishment which I believe has run the country into a ditch."
Ravenel spoke to Reuters at his 60-acre Brookland Plantation on Edisto Island, about 40 miles from Charleston, before the start of a fundraiser he described as a chance to reach out to his 5,000 Facebook friends.
He said many of them were "politically agnostic" and potential votes for him to win.
About 50 people showed up. Among the crowd were fellow cast mates from "Southern Charm," including Ravenel's girlfriend, Kathryn Dennis, who is 29 years his junior, and the couple's daughter who was born in March.
With cameras rolling, Ravenel stood on his porch, quoting the ancient Greek statesman Pericles and talking about how electing an independent would better balance the country's two-party political system.
Some guests showed more interest in the pulled pork and sweet tea lunch spread out on tables under moss-draped live oaks in sweltering 90-degree heat.
TRAILS IN POLLS
Ravenel, often referred to on the show as "T-Rav," officially launched his campaign in July, when he filed a petition to run as an independent.
An early September New York Times/CBS News/YouGov Battleground Tracker poll showed him trailing far behind Graham and Democrat Brad Hutto, with only 8 percent of likely voters saying they would vote for Ravenel. Graham had 37 percent support in the poll, followed by Hutto at 28 percent.
Graham has a huge money advantage in the race, having raised nearly $10 million. Ravenel's campaign would not comment on his totals ahead of filing its first campaign finance report in October. His campaign manager said the candidate intended to invest enough of his own money to win.
Funds are not Ravenel's only challenge. He also must deal with a tricky past. After running for the U.S. Senate a decade ago and placing third in the Republican primary, Ravenel was elected in 2006 as state treasurer in South Carolina.
But he resigned in 2007 after being charged with federal drug trafficking. He pleaded guilty, admitting to sharing cocaine with friends, and served time in prison.
Ben Douglass, 30, who lives on Hilton Head Island and attended the fundraiser at Ravenel's plantation, said he appreciated the candidate's honesty about his past and planned to vote for him.
"So many politicians lie," Douglass said. "He admits his mistakes."
Ravenel is banking his political revival less on "Southern Charm" than on the bet that voters are fed up with elected officials from both parties.
"(They) are infatuated with the smell of their own cologne and they are clinging to their own power," he said. "This is more important than a TV show. I want to get Lindsey Graham out of office."
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)