CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charges of dirty tricks flew once again in South Carolina Tuesday as supporters of Republican Sen. John McCain's campaign described as "absolutely despicable" a flier claiming that he turned his back on fellow prisoners of war in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney's campaign attacked a McCain mailer that criticized the former Massachusetts governor over charges that one watchdog group called "misleading."
The charges come days before Saturday's GOP primary in South Carolina and reflect the high stakes in an election that several candidates consider crucial.
McCain's campaign, burned in South Carolina eight years ago by inflammatory charges about his personal life, wasted no time in responding to the flier it received Tuesday from what it said was a local newspaper.
The flier featured a cartoon of McCain, a former POW, sitting in a cell and a supposed "fact sheet" accusing him of collaborating with his captors.
In a conference call with reporters, Orson Swindle, a fellow POW, described the charges as "slander." He called it "a collection of half truths and misinformation, and they're simply done to try to destroy John McCain in the election Saturday."
South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a McCain supporter, said he was "appalled."
Not only is it "incredibly hurtful" to McCain, he said, but to families of all servicemen captured or still missing in Vietnam.
For its part, Romney's campaign criticized a McCain mailing that targeted the former governor. FactCheck.org, a project of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, said the mailer draws "a picture of Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts that is so distorted as to discredit McCain's claim to be the candidate of 'straight talk'."
For example, the mailer says that Romney "provided taxpayer-funded abortions." FactCheck said a state-subsidized health insurance bill Romney signed as governor left it to an independent body to decide what would be covered. It was that body that agreed to cover abortions.
McCain spokesman B.J. Boling said the campaign stands by its charges.
Republican Fred Thompson's campaign also jumped on McCain.
It alluded to his mailing in a press release that included the headline "Dirty Tricks Come to South Carolina."
"While all the others throw mud and lose ground, we're going to stay clean and win in the end," the Thompson release said. "In the meantime, make sure Grandma's silver is hidden away."
(Morrill reports for The Charlotte Observer.)