Dirty tricks erupt in S.C. Republican campaign

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 17, 2008 

ROCK HILL, S.C. — Teresa Clanton was home doing chores when her phone rang.

An automated voice rattled off names of Republican presidential candidates as if conducting a poll. When Clanton indicated that she supported Fred Thompson, the voice asked if she knew that the former Tennessee senator supports abortion, gay marriage and illegal immigration.

He doesn't.

"It made me angry because they're giving false information," said Clanton, a 52-year-old homemaker from Catawba.

Clanton is among thousands of South Carolina voters who've gotten so-called "push poll" calls in the days leading up to Saturday's Republican primary and next week's Democratic contest.

The calls are just one example of the political dirty tricks that are surfacing in a state with a long tradition of raw politics.

"Dirty politics are as much a part of modern politics as a styrofoam cup of cold coffee in a campaign headquarters," said Neal Thigpen, a political scientist at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C.

This week, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's campaign decried fliers that falsely claim that he turned his back on his fellow prisoners of war in North Vietnam. Another, posted on cars outside a Lake Wylie rally, claimed that McCain "joined with the enemies of South Carolina history and heritage" because he supported removing the Confederate flag from atop the state Capitol.

During the holidays, some South Carolina voters got a Christmas card, purportedly from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Inside were references to his Mormon faith, including a defense of the church's former practice of polygamy.

Last year, Thompson was the subject of a Web site called phoneyfred.org that mocked his candidacy.

But the most ubiquitous dirty tricks involve push polls, and virtually every Republican candidate has been a target of them.

Some push polls about Republicans originate from a Colorado-based firm called Common Sense Issues, which backs former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Last month the group promised to make a million calls in South Carolina on behalf of Huckabee, an evangelical Christian who's denounced such unscrupulous tactics.

"Dirty tricks are at the forefront in this GOP primary because South Carolina's is the first in the South, and the GOP candidates are feeling a greater sense of urgency," said Bill Moore, a political scientist at the College of Charleston. "These dirty tricks don't originate here, but they seem to find a home in South Carolina."

Some, however, do originate in the Palmetto State.

Republican strategist Lee Atwater was a master of hard-hitting politics in South Carolina and later nationally. A top strategist for George H.W. Bush in 1988, he discovered Willie Horton, a black convicted murderer who raped a woman after he was furloughed from prison under Bush's Democratic rival, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. TV ads featuring Horton put Dukakis on the defensive and helped make good on Atwater's promise to "scrape the bark off that little bastard."

"Lee Atwater definitely established a kind of baseline for under-the-table politics and the use of tactics I don't think you'd want to defend to your mama," said University of South Carolina historian Dan Carter.

The state's underhanded politics didn't end with Atwater, though.

In 2000, e-mails and fliers falsely accused McCain of fathering an illegitimate black child and his wife Cindy of being a drug addict. Some of the e-mails were traced to a professor at Greenville's Bob Jones University, which on its Web site says it "exists to grow Christlike character".

"Dirty tricks have a long and very distinguished tradition in South Carolina, back to the days of segregation, when all you had to say to discredit a white politician was to link them to an African-American in any scurrilous fashion," said David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University.

While the Internet helps spread attacks, it also helps control them, said Woodard.

"If a push poll is trying to manipulate a voter with lies," he said, "you can record it and put in on the Internet and usually you can identify who is putting it out. And that can backfire on a candidate."


Hard-hitting politics and "dirty tricks" are nothing new in South Carolina. Some of the more memorable mudslinging:

Jumper cables: In 1980, Republican strategist Lee Atwater dismissed Tom Turnipseed, a Democrat who'd once undergone electroshock therapy for depression. Atwater refused to answer Turnipseed's criticism of GOP tactics, saying he wouldn't respond to "someone who had been hooked up to jumper cables.''

Willie Horton: By 1988, Atwater was a top strategist for George H.W. Bush. He discovered Willie Horton, a black convicted murderer who raped a woman after being furloughed from prison under Bush's rival, Michael Dukakis. TV ads featuring Horton put Dukakis on the defensive and helped make good on Atwater's promise to, as he put it, "scrape the bark off that little bastard."

Hunt and KFC: In 1990, a Charleston-based GOP consultant, trying to turn out more Republican votes, found a nearly illiterate African American named Benjamin Hunt Jr. and paid his filing fee for Congress. Then he sent out thousands of fliers with a photo of Hunt standing in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Hunt's white opponent won.

Infidelity: In 1998, Republicans accused Columbia Democrat Dick Harpootlian of planting an article in Time magazine that raised rumors of infidelity by Republican Gov. David Beasley. Beasley lost his bid for re-election; Harpootlian became state Democratic chairman.

Illegitimate children: In 2000, e-mails circulated by a Bob Jones University professor accused Republican John McCain of fathering an illegitimate child. A flier handed out after one debate said he'd fathered "a Negro child" out of wedlock. It carried a photo of Bridget McCain, whom the McCains had adopted from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh.

'Phoney Fred': Last summer, a Web site went up called phoneyfred.org. It referred to Republican Fred Thompson as "Flip-Flop Fred," "Moron Fred," "Playboy Fred," and "Pimp Fred," among other epithets. It later was traced to a business partner of the chief strategist for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Thompson rival. Romney's campaign disavowed the site.

(Morrill and Huntley report for The Charlotte Observer.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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