Starting Gate: Down – And Dirty

(AP / CBS)
The good news is there are just three full days until the GOP primary in South Carolina. The bad news is there are three full days until the GOP primary in South Carolina.

The Palmetto State has long held the distinction of kingmaker for embattled GOP heavyweights. At one point or another, eventual nominees like George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole and George W. Bush had their candidacies revived by a firewall built by masterminds like Lee Atwater. Like many political tactics used to great success by the late strategist, the firewall wasn't always pretty, but more often than not it worked.

In 2008, the firewall isn't there, at least not for any one candidate. There is no front-runner on the ropes for it to save and the field is fragmented like never before. But the ugliness appears to be alive and well.

John McCain, who has blamed under-handed tactics for his loss in the state in 2000, has set up a rapid-response team this time around. Yesterday, that team went into action, publicly refuting a letter sent to newspapers in the state claiming that McCain provided military information as a POW in Vietnam in order to obtain special medical treatment. The charge was linked to an interview McCain gave to a news magazine in 1973. Fellow POW Orson Swindle, a longtime friend and supporter of McCain's, refuted the charge in a statement, saying "nothing could be further from the truth. I know because I was there."

And phone calls on behalf of Mike Huckabee have begun going out in the state, push-polls containing disparaging information and charges against Huckabee's rivals, including Fred Thompson, according to the Associated Press. One country chairman of Thompson's campaign reported receiving a call containing attacks on Thompson's position on abortion and his past job as a lobbyist.

The group behind the calls is promising to make 1 million more of them in advance of the primary despite the Huckabee campaign's calls for them to stop. "We know nothing about that and don't condone it. Anyone who is doing that in an effort to help us needs to stop. This does not reflect the positive spirit of the campaign," a spokesperson told the AP.

It's going to be a long three days in the Palmetto State.

Trouble Signs for Clinton? Let's be careful not to read too much into the Democratic primary results in Michigan. Hillary Clinton was the only major candidate on the ballot and a vote for the "uncommitted" spot was something supporters of John Edwards and Barack Obama had conducted underground campaigns for, according to reports. Add to that the relatively light turnout and the fact that exit polls indicated Clinton would have won the primary even if every candidate were on the ballot and it looks like a pretty good night for her.

But looking closer, there's at least one potentially troubling sign coming out of the exit polls for her, particularly given the back-and-forth over race the Clinton and Obama campaigns have had this past week. African-American voters, who made up nearly a quarter of the Democratic voter, just 30 percent voted for Clinton while 68 percent voted for "uncommitted."

Clinton and Obama mostly blamed staff and supporters for fueling the flare up over race in last night's Democratic debate in Nevada and tried to move forward from the issue but with South Carolina's primary looming on January 26th, where at least half of the electorate is expected to be African-American, it's doubtful this issue is going away anytime soon.

But He Hasn't Even Spent Those Billions Yet: A series of SurveyUSA polls has some bad omens for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his will-he-won't-he independent bid for the White House. According to the polls, Bloomberg consistently finished third among all combinations of candidates nationwide and few voters even know of him, indicating that he would have to dig into those deep pockets real deeply to raise his name ID. Moreover, the poll found that within New York City itself, Bloomberg doesn't top 28 percent regardless of who the other candidates are.

Around The Track

  • A new Reuters/Zogby poll shows Obama with a one-point lead over Clinton nationally, 39 percent to 38 percent.
  • The battle over Dennis Kucinich's inclusion in the Democratic presidential race last night in Nevada came down to the wire, with the Nevada Supreme Court ruling an hour before the debate that MSNBC could legally exclude the long shot Democratic candidate. The decision overturned an earlier ruling by a district court judge. Kucinich had been invited to the debate before NBC changed its criterion for inclusion and rescinded the invitation, a move which prompted Kucinich to assail the media for trying to muzzle him and others. The Nevada Supreme Court decision, writes the New York Times, "is likely to be described as a First Amendment victory by the news organization, as its lawyers had argued that it had a right, as a privately owned network, to determine who to invite."
  • The makers of "Hillary: The Movie" have lost their court battle to be exempted from campaign finance laws. They had argued that their film, which features conservative commentators arguing that Clinton is unfit to be president, is a documentary similar to "60 Minutes." Citizens United wanted to run ads for the film during campaign season, but judges ruled the group "must either keep its ads off the air or attach a disclaimer and disclose its donors," according to the Associated Press. In 2004 Citizens United argued that ads for ``Fahrenheit 9/11'' should be kept off the air, but the complaint was dismissed because ads for that film were not to be run during campaign season.
  • Is it time to start asking why Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson are still considered viable GOP candidates and Ron Paul is not?
  • And, just in time for the South Carolina primary, the Ron Paul blimp is back!