SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had a popular wrestler and a TV/martial arts star campaigning with him in South Carolina on Thursday, while his GOP rivals accused him of hitting below the belt.
With the state's Republican presidential primary two days away, the presidential campaign grew nasty as former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and Arizona Sen. John McCain accused Huckabee's campaign of conducting push polls — calls disguised as polls that are intended to spread false information about a candidate's opponents.
Thompson, speaking in Prosperity, S.C., charged that a group with links to Huckabee called the Common Sense Foundation was making calls and distorting his record on abortion. Thompson is anti-abortion.
When Thompson asked his audience how many of them had received calls about his abortion record, several hands shot up. The Tennessean called the polls "the most outrageous, easily disproved things."
"I call on the governor to put a stop on this," Thompson said. "I'm somewhat surprised that someone who espouses the values that the governor talks about all the time finds himself in the position where improper activity is going on right under his nose."
Thompson was referring to Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor.
McCain's campaign said Wednesday that it, too, has been the target of abortion push-poll calls by a group called Common Sense Issues, which performed calls on Huckabee's behalf in Iowa.
Huckabee said nothing about the charges Thursday. He played the bass to the tune of "Sweet Home Alabama" and presented popular wrestler "Nature Boy" Ric Flair and martial-arts legend Chuck Norris to students at Clemson University.
"If you don't vote for me, they take you out," Huckabee playfully told the crowd.
When asked about the push-poll charges, the Huckabee campaign directed reporters to a press release on its Web site that was posted Jan. 16.
"As I've said before, our campaign has nothing to do with push polling, and I wish they would stop," Huckabee said in the release. "We don't want this kind of campaigning because it violates the spirit of our campaign."
While the three campaigns hurled accusations at one another, the Republican candidates also tried to offer some substance to prospective voters. McCain proposed a corporate tax cut as part of a plan to boost the economy, responding to growing anxiety among voters.
"Cutting taxes increases revenue," McCain told a rally in a tent on a rainy day in Columbia — even though President Bush's top economic advisers concede that's not true. "It'll expand our economy. It'll lead to jobs and higher wages."
McCain's plan would cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent and provide businesses with tax breaks for research and technology. The long-term proposal is at odds with the prescription from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who's called for immediate, short-term relief to individuals, such as a one-time rebate.
For individuals, McCain would continue Bush's tax cuts and push to eliminate the alternative minimum tax, which was created to target higher-income earners but increasingly threatens upper-middle-income earners.
McCain told the crowd that he'll do as president what a Republican Congress failed to do from 1995 to 2007: cut spending.
"Spending is out of control," he said. "We Republicans came to power in 1994 to change government, and government changed us."
Campaigning in West Columbia, Thompson said he wasn't ready to embrace Bernanke's stimulus package. Like McCain, he also spoke about federal belt-tightening. He also trumpeted fixing Social Security by implementing individual retirement accounts.
Thompson desperately needs a victory in South Carolina to keep his presidential aspirations alive. Critics have complained that his campaign has been lackluster and that he entered the race too late.
When a questioner asked Thompson if his "inundating the state" with television ads was too little, too late, Thompson replied: "The other guys are inundating — I was just revealing. Some guys spend millions in South Carolina, then leave."
Thompson, referring to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's early media splash in the state, asked, "Is that too early, too late? Timing is everything, and nobody knows what the right timing is until election night."
(Mary C. Curtis and Peter Smolowitz of The Charlotte Observer contributed. Johnson reports for The Charlotte Observer.)