As the Republican presidential primary campaign heads to South Carolina, two of the 2008 contenders are re-litigating an old fight.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Fox News Channel on Thursday afternoon that he did not push former senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) to stay in the 2008 primary race.
The statement by McCain came hours after his onetime rival for the GOP nod, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R), charged on the same network that the Arizona senator had formed an alliance with Thompson four years ago to fracture the social conservative vote in South Carolina and pave the way for a McCain win.
“That’s totally false,” McCain told Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly. “It’s totally, patently false for him to say something like that.”
The back-and-forth revives a battle from 2008, when Huckabee’s campaign had alleged that McCain and Thompson had coordinated ahead of the South Carolina primary to keep social conservatives from coalescing around the former Arkansas governor’s bid.
McCain, who has endorsed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) this time, won South Carolina in 2008 with 33 percent to Huckabee’s 30 percent. Thompson took 16 percent, and Romney followed with 15 percent. McCain’s campaign has repeatedly denied that there was any deal with Thompson.
“Maybe it makes him feel better, but it’s not the truth,” McCain said Thursday of Huckabee’s charge. “The fact is that Fred Thompson was viewed as a viable candidate. It is not necessarily so that he took all of Huckabee’s votes. I had a lot of votes there. All I can say to Governor Huckabee is: Good luck to you and your program on Fox, but you’re not telling the truth.”
According to the Web site Fox News Insider, Huckabee had renewed the allegation on “Fox and Friends” Thursday morning.
“It was an honest political move, a good straightforward political move on his part,” Huckabee said. “I had to congratulate him, but it was very painful at the time.”
The exchange comes as the current GOP race is playing out along lines reminiscent of the 2008 race. Romney, just as McCain did four years earlier, is heading into South Carolina on the heels of a win in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.
Some social conservatives in South Carolina are rallying around former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), just as they had been drawn to Huckabee’s bid in 2008. But other candidates in the field – notably Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) – are also drawing the support of social conservatives and could fracture the voting bloc’s power, giving Romney a boost in the Jan. 21 contest.