Dirty tricks

Something about South Carolina brings out the beast in U.S. presidential campaigns.

In the last week before today's primary, the Palmetto State was awash in stealth e-mail attacks, fake polling calls and other dirty tricks reminiscent of the scurrilous rumors that scuttled John McCain's candidacy in 2000.

The dubious tradition stretches back to native son Lee Atwater, the Republican operative who invented many of the modern techniques of negative campaigning, including the 1988 ad that linked Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis to the parole of murderer Willie Horton and contributed to the victory of President George H.W. Bush.

"Many understudies of Lee Atwater are still in this state, in the political-consulting business," said Blease Graham, a scholar of Southern politics at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

Among Republicans, the shenanigans this year include automated telephone pseudo-surveys trashing former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson's stance on abortion, mailings claiming Arizona Sen.ator McCain turned his back on fellow prisoners of war in Vietnam and a phony Christmas card from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney extolling polygamy.

More dirty tricks

Sen. John McCain's campaign condemned a flier that's floating around South Carolina as "absolutely despicable." It features a cartoon of McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, sitting in a cell, and an attached support document accuses him of having collaborated with his captors. It wasn't clear who put it out, but South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a McCain supporter, said he was appalled by it and that it was "incredibly hurtful" to McCain and all the families of servicemen captured or still missing in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, Romney's campaign condemned a McCain mailer that attacked Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts. A respected neutral source, Factcheck

.org, a project of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, said McCain's mailer distorted Romney's record beyond recognition.

Thousands of South Carolina voters also got phone calls from "push polls," calls disguised as poll questions that spread false information about a candidate's opponents.

South Carolina has a reputation for nasty campaign tactics. This week embellished it.

Bear attack

It was the morning after, but the sleeping bear was still on the attack.

Fred Thompson joked that he was tired and in need of caffeine. But when his presidential campaign landed at Surfside Jenny's restaurant outside of Myrtle Beach the morning after last week's GOP debate, he wasted no time ripping into his main target the night before, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Huckabee, Thompson said, isn't committed to the conservative principles embodied by Ronald Reagan and is so out of touch that he favors a federal smoking ban.

"This (election) is about the heart and soul of the Republican Party and where the Republican Party is going to go over the next several years," Thompson said.

Southern values

A group that promotes protection of the Confederate flag is airing radio ads during conservative talk shows in South Carolina that praise Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and criticize John McCain and Mitt Romney for voicing objections to the flag.

The ads are paid for by Americans for the Preservation of American Culture, a Tennessee-based political organization that has been in existence since 2001, according to Federal Election Commission records.

"Waving a confederate battle flag in front of Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney turns out to be like waving a red flag in front of a bull — he charges," the ad states. "Romney let fly in the CNN debate, saying, "That flag shouldn't be shown,' and 'that's not a flag I recognize."'

In its anti-McCain ad, an announcer states: "Mitt Romney is trying, but when it comes to bashing the Confederate flag he can't hold a candle to John McCain. McCain's been doing it — calling the flag a racist symbol — for years."

Combined wire service reports