The martyrdom of John McCain
By: Jonathan Martin
January 18, 2008 02:10 PM EST
COLUMBIA, S.C. —The national media thinks John McCain is under siege again, and his campaign is only too happy to help reporters file their stories.
At a rally Thursday, outside McCain’s headquarters just down the street from the state capitol here, the candidate and a key local supporter, Sen. Lindsey Graham, are explaining that sorcerers of the dark political arts are at work.
“There’s a lot being said out there on phone calls, in the mail, that’s a bunch of garbage — ignore it,” Graham proclaimed. “We know the truth.”
“You know that a lot of nasty things are going on,” McCain added, “but ignore that stuff.”
The truth is, not that many nasty things are going on in 2008, certainly not compared to the bare-knuckled 2000 GOP presidential primary here, and probably not much more so than in your garden-variety campaign for elected office.
A nasty flier touching on McCain’s POW experience has surfaced and a round of anti-McCain automated phone calls has been launched by a pro-Huckabee third-party group — but those are the same calls that were placed in every other early primary state. Other than that, there’s been little in the way of dirty tricks.
McCain’s lagging rivals don’t mention his name in stump speeches, they don’t criticize him and they aren’t even airing negative ads against him.
The campaign is savvy enough to understand the almost unslakable thirst among national reporters to write stories heavy with tales of the sort of down-and-dirty tactics that characterized the race between McCain and George W. Bush in 2000.
The votes were barely all counted in New Hampshire before McCain began facing breathless questions such as, did he have any trepidation about going back to the South Carolina killing field?
“Those rubes down in South Carolina, they vote because of dirty, nasty politics,” said Tucker Eskew, a Palmetto State native and former top Bush adviser in the 2000 race, sarcastically giving voice to what he and many others here see as the outsider view of the state. “The gloves are on — and that doesn’t make for nearly an interesting story.”
“Will South Carolinians see their way through their own hatred to do the right thing?” posits former top McCain strategist John Weaver, also mimicking perception of the state’s voters in elite quarters. “It must be oh-so-entertaining at Elaine’s.”
Indeed, the national media is consumed by the McCain-as-victim narrative just two days out from the Republican primary, with the major newspapers filled with accounts of McCain valiantly fending off smear tactics and the networks focused on the same.
A Thursday evening segment reports that McCain’s “South Carolina Truth Squad” is doing a better job of combating negative ads than in 2000.
Of course, the creation of the group was as much about reminding voters that McCain was attacked in 2000 as it was about defending against actual attacks.
The squad convened a conference call on Tuesday over the POW flier, but they've not had much to do since, aside from decrying the “Trust Huckabee” group’s automated calls — the same calls that have been launched against most of the other candidates as well.
Attorney General Henry McMaster recorded an automated call on behalf of McCain that was sent out to rebut the “Trust Huckabee” calls — but also to point out that McCain was getting hit.
If McCain is any sort of victim this time around, he’s a victim of his own success. Through the hard work of healing old wounds, with soft threats about trains leaving the station and a bit of cold cash for campaigns and consultants, McCain has become the closest thing here to the establishment candidate in a race that lacks a consensus pick.
“The people that beat him in 2000 are for him now” is how Trey Walker, one of McCain’s top advisers here, explained it, doing his best to suppress a smile and talk up the efforts of “Trust Huckabee.”
“He now has the establishment,” Walker bragged.
Thursday’s rally in Columbia gave witness to it. Inside the tent set up in McCain’s headquarters parking lot, a procession of lawmakers took their turn at the microphone before McCain’s convoy arrived. In the sort of towel-snapping bonhomie that is native to Southern capitals, one statehouse insider after another explained that they, too, had been for Bush in 2000 but were now siding with the former insurgent.
Huddled inside McCain’s headquarters and out of the bitter-for-Carolina cold after the rally, McMaster, a smooth-talking Southern pol if there ever was one, was asked directly if he could ever remember another South Carolina race where the front-runner was subjected to nary a negative ad or even any attacks by his rivals on the stump.
“Well, that’s a pretty good question,” McMaster drawled, at a rare loss for words. “Let me think about it.”
And so with Mitt Romney effectively waving the white flag in South Carolina and Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson seemingly more interested in being vice president or at least retaining their friendship with him, McCain appears headed into Saturday’s primary without a single glove being laid on him.
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The martyrdom of John McCain