Shortly before a Republican presidential primary debate in Columbia, South Carolina, this last May, several conservative activists in the state received mysterious envelopes in the mail. The letters arrived anonymously, each one containing an eight-page document, a typewritten manifesto with a pseudo-academic title: "Mormons in Contemporary American Society: A Politically Dangerous Religion?" The letters depicted Mormonism as based on "hoaxes" and ridiculed the church's founder, Joseph Smith, as a "gold digger turned prophet." The mailing also provocatively dubbed Smith "the Mohammed of the West." "Like the prophet of Islam," it said, "Smith founded his religion upon prophecies and revelations which commanded him to become a polygamist and warlord. Many centuries apart, these two men became the focal point of large religions that blurred the lines between religion, war, domestic life and politics." The letters also suggested that Mormons take direct orders from church leaders. They didn't have to name him to make it clear whom they were targeting: Republican presidential candidate - and devout Mormon - .
This being South Carolina, the Romney camp assumed a rival campaign had sent the letter. After all, this wasn't the first subterranean attack on their candidate. Just before a March GOP straw poll in Spartanburg, someone using the e-mail address email@example.com mass-mailed a missive titled, "Mitt Romney has a family secret he doesn't want you to know." "Those dark suspicions you hide deep inside yourself about Mormonism are trying to tell you something, " it read. "Trust your instincts! ... The light of truth will burn through the smoke and mirrors of Mitt Romney's movie star looks and crafty words!" The e-mails arrived around the same time as another anonymous letter, a six-page diatribe titled "Mitt Romney: Say anything to get elected," which ripped the former Massachusetts governor for his positions on abortion, gun control, and "conservative values."
Romney is hardly the innocent victim, though. In September, just aswas preparing to enter the Republican presidential field, PhoneyFred.org appeared. The website was equal parts sophomoric parody and character assassination. Its home page featured an absurd image of Thompson in a period costume with a frilly scarf and gilded jacket (presumably from an acting role). Another photograph featured a grinning shot of the Tennessean surrounded, via Photoshop, by several women to whom he's been romantically linked. The site directed viewers to dirt on Thompson via links with such titles as HOLLYWOOD FRED, WASHINGTON FRED, TRIAL LAWYER FRED, MORON FRED, and PLAYBOY FRED. "[W]e figured it was about time that we did a little research into what Fred Thompson (not Arthur Branch) really stands for," explained a welcome message on the site, referring to the character Thompson plays on "Law & Order." But The Washington Post did a little research, too, and traced the site to the consulting firm of Warren Tompkins, perhaps the top political operative in South Carolina - and a consultant to the Romney campaign.
While the Republican field remains focused on Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina has already developed into the sleaziest leg of the presidential race. That comes as no surprise. The Palmetto State has long practiced an unusually grubby brand of politics. Many presidential candidates would probably skip it altogether if they could. ("They play with live ammo down there!" squawks one campaign aide.) But South Carolina is far too important for that: Not since 1976 has a Republican candidate been nominated without winning the state's contest, the third of the primary season. (This year, Michigan may vote earlier, and Nevada caucuses on the same day - but it's South Carolina the GOP candidates are most focused on.)
As the 2008 Republicans trudge toward this political Mordor, they do so bracing for what threaten to be new lows of attack politics. John McCain's reputation was slandered (and his candidacy ruined) here in 2000 - and he was a war hero. By contrast, the current leaders of the GOP field - Romney, Thompson, and- seem almost tailor-made for the state's smear machine. Romney's opponents are salivating over his Mormonism. Giuliani's marital history, gay friends, and past appearances in drag are all ideal fodder for dead-of-night windshield pamphlets. And one upstate county Republican chairman has already sneered publicly at Thompson's "trophy wife." "It's gonna be brutal," chuckles state Democratic chairwoman Carol Fowler. For the 2008 Republicans, then, winning South Carolina may be less a matter of pulling off a clear victory than simply getting out alive.
Eight years ago, George W. Bush's supporters, apparently backed by the state's GOP establishment, draggedname through the South Carolina mud. Church fliers declared him "the fag candidate." A fringe veterans' group denounced him as a traitor. Anonymous "push-poll" phone calls told voters that he had an illegitimate black child. One Bob Jones University professor even sent a mass e-mail falsely stating that McCain had "chosen to sire children without marriage." Challenged on CNN, the professor responded, "Can you prove that there aren't any?" (Who says BJU isn't academically rigorous?)
So, in 2008, McCain's plan in South Carolina was to be the establishment candidate, the aggressor not the victim. One sign was his decision to re-hire his savvy local political consultant from 2000, Richard Quinn, whose editorship of the Southern Partisan Quarterly Review, which extols Confederate leaders and has played down the brutality of the slave trade, had caused McCain p.r. headaches. He also scored early endorsements from state GOP honchos, like Senator Lindsey Graham, Attorney General Henry McMaster, and a majority of Republicans in the legislature. By early this year, McCain seemed well on his way to building a South Carolina Death Star.
But, after McCain's national campaign went broke this summer, he had to scrap much of his South Carolina team. Now it's Mitt Romney who is building a political juggernaut. Last year, Romney hired Tompkins, who was Bush's chief strategist in the 2000 primary. He's also snapped up several experienced field operatives fresh from the state GOP's "2006 Victory" team. And he recently landed the endorsement of Bob Jones III, chancellor of the Greenville-based Christian university that bears his name - a jackpot for a Mormon trying to insulate himself from doubts among evangelical voters.
Still, the race remains a muddle. Romney has lagged in the polls behind front-runners Fred Thompson, who seems to be benefiting from his Southern roots, and Rudy Giuliani, whose star power and "toughness" obscure a weak ground team.
Of course, those numbers can and probably will change - not least as voters wrestle with Giuliani's fundamental moderation on social concerns, like gun control and gay rights. (At one event in early October, Rudy even suggested that the Lewinsky scandal had been overblown.) "It's only a matter of time before Romney or a 527 starts blasting Rudy on those issues down here," says Greenville Republican strategist Jay W. Ragley, who is not aligned with any candidate. Should those attacks succeed, Republican voters in later primary states on whom Giuliani is counting might conclude that he's damaged goods, unable to rally Republicans in a general election.
It is Rudy's terrible luck that South Carolina comes so early in the GOP primary schedule. And, ironically enough, that itself is something of a dirty trick, one devised by Lee Atwater. Atwater was, of course, the mastermind of the 1988 attack campaign against Michael Dukakis, starring furloughed-felon-turned-rapist Willie Horton, as well as of great prior campaign stunts like saying a rival candidate who'd been treated for depression was "hooked up to jumper cables" and mailing voters a questionnaire asking them to reflect on another candidate's Jewishness. (Atwater denied the latter.)
In 1980, a young Atwater, who once showed up at a college party with a slaughtered pig's head on a stake, was backing Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign when he proposed to vault Reagan to front-runner status by engineering a prominent win for him in Atwater's home state. The plan worked, and South Carolina never gave up its newfound political influence. Since then, it has become a place where the political establishment props up its stumbling favorites, as it did for George H.W. Bush in both 1988 and 1992. In 1996, after Pat Buchanan defeated Bob Dole in New Hampshire, local leaders ordered evangelicals, who in their hearts preferred the populist insurgent, to side with Dole instead, sending him back on his way to his nomination. And, after McCain stunned George W. Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, the Bush presidency looked like a lost dream until McCain's trip through the state's meat grinder. The pattern grew so familiar that, last January, one local GOP consultant told The Washington Post that South Carolina often has to "clean up the mess we inherit from the earlier states."
But 2008 could tell a different story. The GOP establishment that long ran the state has faded, thanks in part to the deaths of Senator Strom Thurmond and former governor Carroll Campbell. "It's a new frontier," says Jim Corbett, state director for Sam Brownback's short-lived presidential bid. "It's wide open. The establishment - experienced, politically involved people - are spread out among the candidates." Instead of an epic two-front war, then, next year South Carolina promises to be a bloody circular firing squad.
Of all the Republican candidates, Romney may have the most to fear from a vicious South Carolina primary. An effective smear campaign about his Mormonism could ruin him with the state's critical evangelical voting bloc. Rudy Giuliani may have worn a dress and Fred Thompson might have a "trophy wife," the thinking would go, but at least they worship the right god. Romney, however, may have insulated himself by hiring Warren Tompkins to run his campaign.
The dirty work of South Carolina politics is conducted by a small crew of operatives who studied at Atwater's elbow. "All of us in this state directly or indirectly trained under him," says Rod Shealy, a veteran GOP consultant not aligned with any campaign. Atwater instilled in his followers a sense of politics as a game with no rules -- one in which treachery was a virtue and not a vice. "People here wear dirty tricks like a badge of honor," says Ragley. They are an irascible lot, often rumpled and wearing garb like Hawaiian shirts and safari hats. "They're really unkempt and eccentric - not like Charleston white boys in boat shoes and bow ties," says one local Democrat. South Carolina operatives tend to congregate in joints with names like the Lizard's Thicket and the Back Porch (co-owned by the son of McCain's consultant Richard Quinn, in fact). Many also have sketchy histories. Shealy himself was once convicted of violating campaign laws after he convinced a black man facing felony charges to join a statewide campaign; the plan was to drive up white voter turnout in favor of Shealy's sister, who was a candidate. Quinn has his association with Southern Partisan. And, to some, the recent anonymous e-mails about Romney recalled a 2002 incident involving Quinn's employee, Trey Walker, John McCain's state campaign manager, who was caught sending an unflattering article about a local candidate from an e-mail address meant to seem like it belonged to Shealy. So goes the internecine world of South Carolina politics.
But, even among this motley crew, Warren Tompkins stands out: "The God of Hell" is how one fellow operative describes him. Tompkins grew up with Atwater, and he is said to most closely emulate his late friend's political style. "Warren is Lee Atwater in a business suit," says University of South Carolina professor Blease Graham, contrasting Atwater's slovenliness with the smooth business demeanor of Tompkins, who has enriched himself in recent years as a corporate lobbyist. Everyone in South Carolina assumes it was Tompkins who stage-managed the savaging of John McCain in 2000, even if he was taking cues from Karl Rove. "I think the mastermind resided someplace else, but I think [Tompkins] was the instrument of it," says former McCain adviser John Weaver. Hence, few people were surprised to learn that the PhoneyFred website was traced back to Tompkins's firm. (Tompkins said a subordinate acted on his own.)
Even with Tompkins as his secret weapon, however, Romney is hardly in the clear. The day after he was endorsed by Bob Jones III, The Greenville News printed an e-mail comment from a "self-described rank-and-file conservative" named Wayne Owens, who declared, "As Christians we should not endorse a cult member as our president." When I read this quote to a Republican with presidential campaign experience in the state, he cackled and declared, "That was probably sent by Rudy Giuliani's county chairman!"
He was joking. But, by South Carolina standards, a bogus e-mail to a reporter would hardly be shocking. Indeed, it may be the new business as usual. As Shealy notes, "The anonymity of the Internet is going to take the whole game to a new and much lower level than thought possible." Last April, one anonymous blog - "McCain SC," the "Unofficial Home for Palmetto State McCainiacs" - hawked a New York tabloid story alleging that Giuliani's wife Judith was "involved in a program that killed innocent puppies" to test medical products. It sounds like the McCain team may have learned its lesson back in 2000, and now knows the secret to victory: When in South Carolina, do as the South Carolinians do.
By Michael Crowley
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