McCain's 2000 lesson

McCain hopes to avoid repeat of 2000
By Andrew Ward in South Carolina
Published: January 17 2008 21:00

Last updated: January 17 2008 21:00

For John McCain, victory in Saturday’s Republican primary in South Carolina would exorcise the ghosts of the bitterest moment in his political career.
It was in South Carolina in 2000 that his first presidential campaign crumbled after a vicious smear campaign by supporters of his opponent, George W. Bush.

A barrage of distortions and lies was spread through phone calls and leaflets, including allegations that the Arizona senator had fathered an illegitimate black child and that his wife was a drug addict.

The smears reinforced doubts about Mr McCain among social conservatives and helped deliver Mr Bush a resounding victory that set him on course for the Republican nomination and the White House.

Eight years later, South Carolina could once again decide the fate of Mr McCain’s presidential ambitions, and he has arrived in the state determined to avoid another ambush.

“I'm not sure the people of South Carolina would stand for it again,” he told a rally in Charleston.

Until the past few days, campaigning had remained largely good-natured, confounding the state’s reputation for brutal political combat. Mr McCain had appeared almost immune from attack in part because opponents were wary of being accused of reprising the smear tactics of 2000.

But as campaigning intensifies ahead of Saturday’s poll, isolated cases of skullduggery have started to emerge. A group called Common Sense Issues, which supports Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, has pledged to make 1m phone calls before polling day highlighting Mr McCain’s support for “using unborn babies in medical research” – a reference to his support for embryonic stem cell research.

Like Mr Bush in 2000, Mr Huckabee has said he has nothing to do with the negative campaigning and has called on supporters to stop the practice. “We don't want this kind of campaigning because it violates the spirit of our campaign,” he said.

A second line of attack against Mr McCain has come from a group called Vietnam Veterans Against McCain, which says it is not affiliated with any candidate. The group has distributed leaflets accusing Mr McCain of betraying his comrades by breaking down under questioning by Vietnamese interrogators during his five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. The allegations are aimed at challenging his reputation as a war hero, one of his most valuable electoral assets in South Carolina, which has one of the largest concentrations of military veterans in the US.

The McCain campaign has set up a “Truth Squad” to pounce on negative campaigning and it swung into action this week to rebut the fresh allegations.

Orson Swindle, a McCain supporter who shared a cell with him in Hanoi for more than two years, was made available to reporters within hours of the Vietnam leaflet surfacing. “These two pieces of paper are a collection of half truths and misinformation and are simply done to destroy John McCain in the election Saturday,” he said. “It's the same kind of appalling stuff that was done in spades in 2000.”

Rival campaigns accuse Mr McCain of highlighting the attacks against him to elicit sympathy and create an impression that he is owed victory to right the wrongs of 2000. They point out too that the senator has the backing of much of the South Carolina Republican establishment this year, in contrast to his underdog status in 2000. Mr McCain is vying with Mr Huckabee for victory in the state, with both looking to build on earlier wins in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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