WASHINGTON — Just as he did in 2000, Sen. John McCain has rolled into South Carolina under a head of steam from his comeback win in New Hampshire. The Arizona senator hopes the similarities end there.
As McCain campaigns across the Palmetto State with his pal, Sen. Lindsey Graham, he's confident he won't lose this time around when South Carolina Republicans vote Jan. 19 in their presidential primary. "The entire world has changed (since 2000)," McCain said in an interview Friday as he drove from a rally at Applewood House of Pancakes on Pawleys Island, S.C., to a meeting with 500 people waiting for him at Alex's Restaurant in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
"America has been attacked," McCain said. "We're now in two wars. We face the threat of radical Islamic extremism. It's a time for experience and knowledge."
While the leading Democratic candidates reach for the brass ring of change, McCain grasps the mantle of steadfastness.
And if former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani trumpets his response to the Sept. 11 attacks, McCain highlights his leading advocacy of aggressive military action in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond over the six-plus years since that tragic day.
"When John called for a change of strategy in Iraq, he showed that experience and knowledge matter," Graham said. "We're at war. Commander-in-chief credentials matter more now than at any time in memory."
Eight years ago, McCain entered South Carolina as an insurgent. He was the maverick riding his Straight Talk Express, the only Republican willing to challenge the party establishment's anointed candidate, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. In the blink of an eye, McCain was ambushed in the most brutal political campaign ever waged in South Carolina.
Shadowy political operatives made phone calls and distributed fliers that targeted McCain’s most precious personal commodity — his character and integrity.
Anonymous phone operators conducted "push polls" — in which negative rumors or half-truths about a candidate are conveyed under the guise of objective polling.
The callers asked whether GOP voters' opinion of McCain would change if they were to learn that he had fathered an illegitimate black child (a salacious reference to the Bangladeshi baby John and Cindy McCain had adopted at Mother Teresa's orphanage).
The callers intimated that Cindy McCain had a drug addiction.
Worst of all for McCain, a decorated Vietnam War POW who had been tortured, the callers hinted that he had sold out his country at the hands of his captors.
South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster was chairman of the state Republican Party in 2000. He was neutral in the bitter primary contest between Bush and McCain.
"I remember the anonymous fliers being put on car windshields in church parking lots," McMaster recalled a few days ago. "It was a vicious whisper campaign."
After just three days of the dark attacks, McCain's momentum was dead. He lost to Bush by a 53-42 percent margin.
Some McCain aides believed the attacks were orchestrated by Karl Rove, Bush's long-time political guru in Texas and later in the White House. Other long-time allies, to this day, blame Warren Tompkins, a prominent Columbia, S.C., Republican consultant and lobbyist who helped run Bush's South Carolina campaign in 2000. The festering claim that he was the McCain hit man enrages Tompkins, who is now advising Romney. "It's all sour grapes!" Tompkins said Thursday. "Every campaign does push polls. These people need to move on and get a life!"
To guard himself against such personal attacks this time, McCain has set up a "truth squad" of prominent South Carolina Republicans, among them McMaster and Bobby Harrell, SC House speaker.
"In order to have a negative campaign like that really stick, you need to have a candidate who's not known," McMaster said. "This time, Senator McCain is very well known. If these sort of nasty things come up again, people probably won't believe them. But if they do, we are prepared to challenge them quickly and with force."
The ugly episode embittered McCain for years. But partly for political expediency aimed at this year's White House run, he forgave Bush and campaigned actively for his re-election in 2004. Since then, McCain has been among the strongest supporters of Bush's war policy in Iraq. And he walked the plank for Bush last year by trying to push through the Senate a doomed immigration bill that would have provided legal status for undocumented foreign workers.
In eight years, McCain has transformed himself from the maverick outsider to the trustworthy insider with impeccable conservative bonafides.
Some of Bush's biggest money men in South Carolina are now raising funds for McCain: Bob Royall of Huger, a former U.S. envoy to Tanzania; Dr. Eddie Floyd, a prominent Florence cardiologist; John Rainey, an influential Camden attorney.
More than 100 retired admirals and generals endorsed him last month at a news conference in Columbia, S.C. A similar number of prominent former members of the Reagan administration heralded him Jan. 6.
"We've got a very deep network that we didn't have before," Graham said. "John got many camp finance chairmen from the Bush campaigns. John's got a conserve record that hasn't changed. At the end of the day, his profile fits 2008 just as Ronald Reagan's profile fit 1980 for the county and our party."
McCain has long viewed the 2008 South Carolina primary a pivotal contest. He's made 38 visits to the state since 2000, often accompanied by Graham. On Thursday, McCain traveled to Tommy's Hamhouse in Greenville, a political hub in the heart of the conservative Upstate. Hundreds of partisans cheered when McCain pledged to "chase Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell!"
Yet, McCain's support for the failed immigration reforms last summer enraged many conservative activists who will cast ballots Jan. 19 in the state's GOP primary. McCain now stresses securing the U.S.-Mexican border and deporting illegal immigrations who have committed crimes in the United States — about 2 million, or one-sixth the total, according to the Homeland Security Department.
But some skeptical Republican stalwarts think he still supports amnesty for illegal immigrants. Samuel Harms is chairman of the Greenville County Republican Party. Its executive committee formally censured Graham last summer for supporting the immigration reforms.
"South Carolina is a very southern, very conservative state," Harms said. "John McCain's stances on amnesty for illegal immigration, his support of the 'Gang of 14' (senators) in which he joined Ted Kennedy (to move stalled judicial nominees), and his support of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law that limited political speech of the average person — these are all issues that are going to detrimentally affect his campaign in South Carolina."
"If South Carolinians are focused on the issues, he's not going to do very well. If they're focused on personality traits, then he is going to do OK."