By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 17, 2008
As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) campaigned in South Carolina yesterday, he confronted crudely produced fliers attacking his war record and a blitz of robotic phone calls twisting his position on abortion, attacks he said were reminiscent of the political kneecapping he endured in the state eight years ago.
A group calling itself Vietnam Veterans Against McCain circulated the leaflet accusing the presidential candidate of collaborating with the enemy during his years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Another group called Common Sense Issues, which has financial backing from supporters of rival GOP candidate Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, paid for 1 million automated telephone calls in South Carolina describing McCain as a proponent of medical tests on fetuses and amnesty for illegal immigrants.
"It's the same kind of appalling stuff that was done in spades in 2000," said Orson Swindle, 71, a Marine veteran who spent two years as a prisoner of war in a cell with McCain. "It's being done for an obvious reason. It's being done because last time it worked."
In 2000, after McCain won the New Hampshire primary, his effort to deny George W. Bush the GOP presidential nomination effectively ended in South Carolina. McCain came under withering attack in a state with a tradition of religious conservatism and hardball political tactics, with opponents using "push" polls and e-mails to spread falsehoods about both his legislative record and personal life.
As the fresh attacks began to land this week in advance of Saturday's GOP primary, McCain's campaign aides and allies said they are far better prepared this time. The campaign deployed a "truth squad" of high-profile supporters to try to bat down the attacks. At a rally in Greenville on Wednesday, McCain sought to assure voters that he is ardently opposed to abortion, which he has not previously highlighted in his speeches.
"I have a strong pro-life record running 24 years," McCain said, adding that "we know there are phone calls being made that I am pro-choice."
Richard Quinn, a South Carolina political consultant who worked for McCain in 2000 and is advising him again this year, said he is confident the campaign is prepared to deflect the attacks and noted that many in South Carolina political circles who backed Bush eight years ago are supporting McCain.
"I don't know how nasty it can get in three days, but I have confidence that if it does get bad, it will backfire," Quinn said. "It's a different environment. A different time."
While the McCain camp sent out e-mails immediately decrying the flier and the phone calls, his opponents questioned whether the senator's true intent was to bat down the attacks or if he is more interested in garnering sympathy and attention.
Warren Tompkins, a consultant to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney who had worked on Bush's efforts in the state, said he was discussing McCain's vocal response to the attacks with other Romney supporters as they traveled with their candidate on a bus trip across South Carolina.
"None of us can understand their obsession with reliving the 2000 campaign," Tompkins said. "They need to let the ghosts and goblins go."
Tompkins also questioned how many people would have even seen the flier had McCain's campaign not drawn so much attention to it.
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.
"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.