McCain Takes the Fight To Negative Opponents

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.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 17, 2008; Page A10

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.

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