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McCain Takes the Fight To Negative Opponents

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John McCain rallies supporters in Columbia, S.C. The Post's David Broder notes the senator now has supporters from almost every element of the Republican Party. Video by Ed O'Keefe/washingtonpost.com

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The author of the attack, a North Carolina political activist named Ted Sampley, said in an interview yesterday that he has long tormented McCain and also worked to discredit the war record of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) during the 2004 presidential campaign. Sampley said he mailed the leaflet to 80 news outlets in South Carolina and was pleased with the coverage it received.

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"We've had a long-running battle with John McCain and his fabricated heroism," Sampley said. "We attempted to get some discussion going by sending out a flier."

The executive director of the group responsible for the anti-McCain phone calls, Common Sense Issues, questioned why McCain is characterizing the phone drive as an attempt to engage in push polling, which typically involves the caller using the guise of a research survey to spread a negative message about a candidate. Patrick Davis said the 45-second calls use special technology that provides a different automated message, depending on how the recipient answers questions.

Moreover, Davis said: "A strict push poll is delivering not-truthful information. Everything we say is factual and backed up."

Davis said the message about McCain's support for "research on the unborn" relates to his support for stem cell research. He said the amnesty message traces to bipartisan legislation McCain supported that would have provided a pathway to legal citizenship for most of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants without forcing them to return their home countries. McCain has disputed that the legislation represented amnesty.

The group behind the calls operates as a nonprofit and is barred from coordinating its efforts with any campaign. They have spent more than $100,000 on the phone operation, hiring ccAdvertising, a Herndon-based research firm that has worked for anti-tax guru Grover G. Norquist, the National Rifle Association, National Right to Life and other conservative groups that have tussled with McCain.

South Carolina political veterans said the attacks are tame compared with the smears that have a rich tradition in the state, which produced Lee Atwater, the legendary operative who helped design the Willie Horton ad that savaged Michael S. Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. Atwater expressed regret about his methods on his deathbed.

Quinn, the McCain adviser, said yesterday he will not let history repeat itself this year, or "let the process be poisoned by these shadowy attacks."

Tompkins scoffed at that notion of McCain as victim.

"There's a group around the senator that just can't let this thing go," Tompkins said.

Staff writer Alec MacGillis contributed to this report.


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