Dirt Starts Flying in South Carolina

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(l. to r.): Melissa Golden / Bloomberg News / Landov; Eric Thayer / Getty

Republican presidential hopefuls Mike Huckabee (left) and John McCain

It's always surprising when John McCain has nothing to say. But there he was on the back of his campaign bus Friday, unable or unwilling to discuss the merits of his rival for the presidential nomination in South Carolina, Mike Huckabee.

What did McCain make of Huckabee's relatively aggressive proposal to deal with illegal immigration? "I don't know," McCain said. "The only time I really pay attention is during these debates." What did McCain think about Huckabee's economic populism? "I don't know, again, what he is saying," McCain allowed. Were there really no clear differences? "We have differences," McCain admitted, noting his greater experience with national security and his concern over Huckabee's plan for a federal sales tax. "But I don't try to highlight those differences."

This is not the pre-primary day rhetoric that South Carolina Republicans have come to expect. The primary down here is traditionally a nasty affair, with candidates not hesitating to tear each other down or at least highlight their differences. But as the McCain campaign rode down the sea coast towards Charleston before the weekend, the candidate spoke as if he was defying history. When asked if he thought he could get through South Carolina without going negative on his opponents, he said, "I think I can."

It was a nice thought, but there is probably no political professional in South Carolina who would bet on it. The stakes next Saturday in this chaotic nomination fight are just too high, and at least four Republican candidates, including McCain, have positioned themselves for a bruising battle. "The calm before the storm is my guess," opined Katon Dawson, the chairman of the state party, on Saturday.

Indeed, even as McCain spoke on the bus, his campaign had already postmarked a nasty negative mailer in South Carolina with several misleading claims about Mitt Romney, including the allegation that the former Massachusetts governor had "provided taxpayer funded abortions." The Huckabee campaign, for its part, was putting the finishing touches on an eight-page research document, accusing Fred Thompson of an "anything goes" record on spending and lobbying ties to the "terrorist government of Libya." At the same time, Thompson continued his argument — made forcefully in last week's debate — on the stump and in email press releases that Huckabee is a closet liberal who would betray the legacy of Ronald Reagan. Meanwhile, the Romney campaign, which has flooded South Carolina with aggressive mailers, positioned itself like a coiled snake, ready to strike as needed, depending on the outcome of Tuesday's Michigan primary.

And those were just the official machinations. By tradition, the nastiest onslaughts in South Carolina come from independent or anonymous third parties, which can be run by supporters of rival candidates. Late last week, a new Arkansas group called "Victims Voice" made a small television buy here with an ad that effectively accused Huckabee of allowing the rape and murder of a young woman. The ad refers to the case of Wayne Dumond, a convicted Arkansas rapist who was paroled in 1997 and went on to murder Missouri native Carol Sue Shields in 2000. (As Arkansas governor, Huckabee announced that he supported Dumond's release from prison, believing him rehabilitated, though he denies pressuring the parole board to make the final decision to grant the release.)

The organizer of Victims Voice, a 29-year-old who works at his father's Arkansas document company, said the group planned to increase its footprint on South Carolina in the coming week. "What we have done thus far is not very big compared to what we will be doing," said Keith Emis on Saturday. "Money is continually coming in through our website." He declined to identify his donors, who under tax law are allowed to maintain their anonymity until after the primary is over. Consultants and campaign staffs expect other similar political non-profits, called 527s in the U.S. tax code, to appear in the coming days. "I worry about the 527s," said McCain's most prominent supporter in the state, Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Other anonymous attacks are still being uncovered. On Sunday, the McCain campaign put out word that a phone bank in the northern part of the state had begun to hear from voters who were receiving "negative information" about McCain. The campaign did not disclose the substance of the information, but it set up a hotline number for voters to call in about any "malicious messages, letters, phone calls, e-mails, fliers" impugning McCain's character or record. B. J. Boling, the campaign's spokesman, suggested that they were especially sensitive given some of the attacks that McCain suffered in 2000, including the false claim that McCain had fathered a black child. "We are being extra cautious here," Boling said. The campaign has even sent out a mailer to voters that explains how the McCain family came to adopt a daughter named Bridget from an orphanage in Bangladesh.

Other attacks have become so common that they rarely make the news. For months, Republican activists in South Carolina have been bombarded with anonymous emails and mailers, many of which have taken aim at Romney's Mormon faith, which remains a concern among some of the state's evangelical voters. One mailer, delivered for the holidays, appeared to be a Mormon Christmas card. "We have now clearly shown that God the Father had a plurality of wives," the card read, before falsely claiming it had been sent by the "Romney family" and paid for by a Mormon temple in Boston. Dawson, of the state G.O.P., turned the mailer over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the hopes of a mail fraud investigation.

McCain's aspiration to stay positive will also soon be under pressure from Huckabee himself, who in recent days has shown a sharpened message against the man he often praises as an American hero. "The immigration plan that I have is very comprehensive and thorough," he said Sunday, after being asked about McCain. "And I think it is far more what the people of South Carolina are looking for." Huckabee, 52, then made an oblique reference to McCain's age, 71, which shows up in polls as an issue for some voters. "I also believe that we have an opportunity to represent a new generation of leaders in this country," Huckabee said.

In his next sentence, however, Huckabee pivoted, joining McCain in denouncing negative attacks. "It has nothing to do with saying anything negative about Sen. McCain," Huckabee continued. "I think we both bring our own qualifications to the table. We have some things we're going to be similar in, and many things will be different."

They are differences that are certain to come into sharp relief in the coming days. And in the grandest of South Carolina traditions, the candidates who draw their knives and throw their elbows will claim all the while that they want to keep the race positive. This is the way of South Carolina politics, and despite the current rhetoric of the campaigns, there is no sign that it will change anytime soon.