COLUMBIA — For years, Bobby Harrell has done as little political fundraising as possible — usually just a letter to past donors, maybe a casual picnic for supporters at $25 a family.

In a state Legislature in which half the members often run unopposed, and powerful lawmakers such as Harrell rarely face a serious challenge, that has always been enough.

But with campaign filing still weeks away, the House Speaker already has held three fundraisers and has three more on the books. Several other influential incumbents, including Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, have raised more money to date than they spent in their last re-election bids, and many others are trying to do the same.

They feel like they must, because they might be on The List.

Rumors of a legislative "hit list" have been around so long it has become a Statehouse legend — an almost mythical sheet of paper said to hold the names of state lawmakers Gov. Mark Sanford wants to get rid of, at least politically.

Sanford insists no such list exists, but he makes no secret of the fact that he has, and might again, endorse challengers to incumbents with whom he disagrees.

No one at the Statehouse disputes the governor's right to campaign for or against whomever he wants; but they fear that political action committees friendly to Sanford's causes, and operated by his friends, are recruiting opponents with the promise of out-of-state campaign funding.

It is enough to make everyone, no matter how comfortable, take notice.

"Nobody likes to raise money," said Harrell, R-Charleston, who has $230,000 in his war chest for this year's election, "but when you hear rumors all the time that someone is looking for an opponent for you, you realize you'd better. I don't know that there is a hit list. But the reality is you'd better take the rumors seriously."

Most lawmakers are doing just that. Quietly, many incumbents are holding fundraisers in Columbia every night the General Assembly is in session, casual drop-ins nestled among the almost nightly receptions. Some insiders call the fundraising frenzy an electoral arms race, the idea being that you are less likely to draw an opponent if you are sitting on a sizeable amount of campaign cash.

"I don't think I'm on any list," said McConnell, R-Charleston, who has raised nearly $500,000 this cycle, "but I'm not taking any chances. I am putting together a rather large re-election fund."

The rift exists

The List, whether real or not, is symbolic of five years of eroding relations. The rift between governor and Legislature has been growing so long it's hard to say exactly how it all started — personality conflicts, differing philosophies or political styles.

In short, Sanford complains that the Legislature isn't fiscally responsible enough and is unwilling to make the monumental changes needed to reform state government. Lawmakers complain that Sanford isn't pragmatic enough about what can be done and bristle at what they describe as his "my-way-or-the-highway" approach, his vetoes of programs they deem worthy.

Sanford contends he is just doing what he was elected to do: bring the government into modern times, regardless of party; and he's having to drag some people kicking and screaming.

"A lot of people get on their surfboard, paddle out, catch the next big wave and ride it," Sanford said. "We're trying to create the next big political wave."

Part of the problem here centers on the Budget and Control Board, a state agency that handles much of South Carolina's administrative functions — things that, in other states, a governor controls. Although Sanford is chairman of the Budget and Control Board, he often doesn't have the votes to do the things he wants. That's because of two legislators on the board, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Piedmont, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.

Clearly there is bad blood there. Cooper said political groups friendly to the governor have tried to recruit at least two people to run against him. That same year, as Sanford was predicting budget shortfalls and urging spending cuts, Leatherman quipped that "Chicken Little is again roosting at the Statehouse." The next year, when a budget shortfall estimate surfaced, Sanford issued an "I-told-you-so" press release, reprinting Leatherman's remarks.

Cooper and Leatherman both said that if The List exists, they are on it. But Sanford said it's just an urban legend.

"There is no hit list," Sanford said. "It would be foolish for me to say, 'I think I'll take on the House and Senate.' "

But that doesn't mean the governor would not campaign against some people.

"If someone ran against Senator Leatherman, I'd probably support them," Sanford said.

Leatherman said it's no secret he and the governor don't get along and added that it would be "disastrous" for Sanford to control all state government functions. But he said he'd feel that way about any governor. Leatherman casts their differences in economics — he's for the little guy, Sanford's proposals are aimed at helping the wealthy.

Leatherman said that if a List exists, he's ready. He has raised nearly $600,000 for his re-election campaign so far.

"This seat doesn't belong to me, it belongs to the people of Florence County," Leatherman said. "I've been in the trenches before; I don't mind going back."

Rumors of The List

Last year, Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, heard a rumor that he was on The List. Rather than speculate about it or fret over it, he called Sanford directly.

"He told me there is no list and I take him at his word," Martin said. "But I've had some contributions coming my way because other people believe it's true."

Others have not taken things so calmly. Sen. Jake E. Knotts, R-West Columbia, said Sanford's friends are behind a nasty rumor about him. That has put the former police detective on a personal quest to ferret out Sanford's actions. Knotts said last year that $101,000 left over from a governors convention that Sanford donated to Carolinians for Reform Inc. was for campaigns against those on The List.

State Rep. Bill Cotty, R- Columbia, said some of Sanford's supporters — if not the governor himself — were behind a rough campaign waged against him in 2006. Even though Cotty said he votes with Sanford more than almost anyone in the Legislature, he didn't support a voucher and tax credit program to allow children to attend private schools.

And that, he said, is what got him on The List.

Cotty won re-election but said he won't run again. He said it's not because he's afraid he's on The List.

"I was in the campaign from hell," he said. "I am a survivor. Billy won. I don't have any question I could win again. I'm very fortunate. I have an electorate that's not one-issue-oriented, that's willing to listen, and they know me."

Fears about The List

Fear of The List not only is pushing fundraising efforts, Sanford said it also has had the Legislature toying with some unconstitutional ideas to tie his hands.

Last month, the Senate considered imposing reporting standards on organizations associated with elected officials. The bill was, most concede, all about The List. It would have made it illegal for an elected official to organize "political awareness organizations," a moniker some groups use to claim they are not political action committees.

Eventually, the bill was sent back to committee, where it likely will stay. The idea was impractical, some lawmakers say.

Of course, by that measure, a hit list also is impractical. Even if Leatherman or Cooper is defeated, a Sanford ally would not necessarily take his place on the Budget and Control Board. Replacements come from the ranks of senior incumbents, who probably have views similar to the legislative leaders.

"In order to really change the face of the General Assembly, they would have to defeat 30 to 35 members," Harrell said.

That's a tall order, one that no one — not even the secret keepers of a hit list — could pull off. But that doesn't mean people aren't taking this all seriously.

Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, laughs at the idea of a political hit squad being after him. But he admits that many lawmakers take it a lot more seriously than UFO reports and Bigfoot sightings.

"The governor said there is no list," he said, "but a lot of people in this chamber believe there is."