Negativity Reigns Again In South Carolina

south carolina romney huckabee mccain thompson
CBS/AP
This analysis was written by CBSNews.com political reporter David Miller.

If North Carolina is the Tarheel State, neighboring South Carolina, host of Saturday's crucial Republican primary might aptly be called the Tar Pit State - at least when it comes to politics.

After a few weeks of relatively civilized campaigning in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan, the mud has flown freely during the last days of the South Carolina race. The top candidates are going after each other and outside groups have seemingly emerged from nowhere, using questionable tactics - some would say dirty tricks - that lift one candidate, bring down another, but risk tarnishing them all.

None of this, of course, is anything South Carolina voters haven't seen before. Infamous GOP strategist Lee Atwater, who once planted a reporter at a press conference to disclose an opponent's electroshock therapy treatments, was a fixture of state politics in the 1980s. In 2000, John McCain, then campaigning against George W. Bush, was the target of a vicious underground smear campaign, one Bush denied being involved with, that accused McCain, among other things, of fathering a black child out of wedlock and abandoning veterans, and claimed his wife had a drug problem.

That race has gone down in the state's political history as one of the nastiest ever waged. This year hasn't seen that level of mudslinging, but the tone of the race is undeniably more negative than in the states that came earlier on the calendar. The opening salvo may have come on Jan. 10 when Fred Thompson - who needs a strong showing on Saturday to keep his campaign afloat - came out swinging at Mike Huckabee during a debate in Myrtle Beach.

"This is a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and its future," Thompson said at the debate. "On the one hand, you have the Reagan revolution. You have the Reagan coalition of limited government and strong national security. On the other hand, you have the direction that Gov. Huckabee would take us in. He would be a Christian leader, but he would also bring about liberal economic policies, liberal foreign policies. He believes we have an arrogant foreign policy in the tradition of 'blame America first.' He believes that Guantanamo should be closed down and those enemy combatants brought to the United State to find their way into the court system eventually. He believes in taxpayer-funded programs for illegals, as he did in Arkansas. He has the endorsement of the National Education Association, and the NEA said it was because of his opposition to vouchers. HE said he would sign a bill that would ban smoking nationwide. So much for federalism. So much for states' rights. So much for individual rights."

Thompson, appearing more animated than he has most of the campaign, ended with a stinging indictment: "That's not the model of the Reagan coalition - that's the model of the Democratic Party."

Since then, all the Republican contenders have been on the receiving end of some vicious barbs. McCain has once again seen his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam questioned. This time, he's been accused of betraying his fellow POWs - a claim he and his supporters quickly, and strongly rebuked.

And plenty of attention has gone to the escalating tensions between Thompson, a former Tennessee senator, and Huckabee, who has joked that Thompson's debate outburst indicated he'd finally woken up. The animosity between the two camps really escalated, however, when an outside group supporting Huckabee, Common Sense Issues, started placing automated phone calls to South Carolina voters that effectively questioned Thompson's conservative credentials - particularly on abortion - under the guise of a poll.

Patrick Davis, the GOP consultant behind Common Sense Issues, denied that he's up to anything underhanded.

"The facts of a person's voting records, public statements and public positions are up for fair analysis in any election," he said. "We use the information we gather for where people stand on those issues to encourage them to support leaders who stand with those positions. Sen. Thompson and Sen. McCain and Gov. Romney and Gov. Huckabee are all mentioned in our phone calls."

But what Davis portrayed as a voter education effort has been labeled by others as a "push poll," phone calls that purport to be legitimate surveys of public opinion, but only serve the purpose of pushing negative - sometimes false - information about a candidate onto voters. And by South Carolina's standards, the anti-Thompson calls might actually be considered tame.

"I would have to say that, yes, it was a push poll, but it was kind of a nice one," said Neal Thigpen, a longtime GOP activist and political science professor at Francis Marion University. "This was genteel by South Carolina standards."

Other candidates haven't been spared, either. Mitt Romney's rightward shifts on social issues and Mormon faith have been frequent targets and Thompson has been strongly critical of his opponents on immigration.

Perhaps remembering the treatment McCain endured in 2000, his campaign has tried to stay out of the fray and, at least publicly, denounced the fighting between Thompson and Huckabee even though they might stand to benefit.

"I think that anytime someone is partaking in these negative activities, it only hurts all of us. It's detrimental," McCain spokesperson B.J. Bolling said. "I think it would be purely speculative to say that Gov. Huckabee and Sen. Thompson or any other candidates going back and forth helps a third candidate."

So why is this Palmetto State primary, like others in years past, standing out for its negativity? The makeup of the Republican electorate may play a role. In contrast to Iowa, no one candidate seems to have a lock on evangelical Christians and other socially conservative voters - sparking a fiercer competition, especially when several of the candidates could see their White House hopes extinguished by a poor showing.

Huckabee resoundingly won over social conservatives in the Hawkeye State and his odds of winning Saturday will rise if he can do the same in South Carolina - something Thompson's camp doesn't think will happen.

"I think Gov. Huckabee has relied upon social conservatives to build his campaign starting in Iowa but the socially conservative voter in South Carolina is different than the average socially conservative voter in Iowa in that they're a big picture voter," Thompson spokesman Jeff Sadosky said. "They're interested in tax issues, national security issues."

But whether it's national security and taxes in 2008, or the Confederate flag in 2000, the mud is always sure to fly in South Carolina, and splatter anyone who's unfortunate enough to be standing nearby - after yet another negative campaign, it makes one wonder why the state comes so early in the process, instead of toward the end.
By David Miller