Thursday, January 17, 2008

McCain vs. the Volcano

You’re not going to get any support for John McCain’s run for the White House from me, but I think it is both interesting and instructive that he is running into the same buzz-saw that he first encountered in South Carolina eight years after he was trashed by the Bush campaign.

[A] group called Common Sense Issues, which supports Mike Huckabee, had begun making what it said were a million automated calls to households in South Carolina telling voters, according to one of the calls, that Mr. McCain “has voted to use unborn babies in medical research.” (The campaign of Mr. Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, said it had no connection to the group and had asked it to stop the calls.)

Mr. McCain quickly fired back, but he has seen this movie before. In the 2000 South Carolina primary, one of the most notorious smear campaigns in recent American politics peddled distortions and lies about him, among them that Mr. McCain’s current wife, Cindy, was a drug addict and that the couple’s daughter Bridget, adopted from Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Bangladesh, was a black child Mr. McCain had fathered out of wedlock.

Although Mr. McCain, of Arizona, roared into the state as the upset winner in New Hampshire that year — a feat he repeated last week — eight years ago he had neither the organization nor the money to respond. He lost the state to George W. Bush, and his campaign soon derailed.

Hard lessons learned: This time Mr. McCain is deploying a South Carolina Truth Squad and much of the state’s Republican political establishment, which backed Mr. Bush in 2000. Mr. McCain, who over the last seven years methodically courted important South Carolina Republicans and showered them with money from his political action committee, now has them on board to try to intercept the attacks before there is major damage.

In 2000, said Trey Walker, Mr. McCain’s South Carolina political consultant, “it was a lot like sitting in the Norad command center looking up at that big board and seeing all these thousands of missiles coming in on you and being able to get off one little puff of smoke back.”

Now, Mr. Walker said, “If we get an indication there’s an early launch, we have certain detection devices out there, we’ll respond.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but if these erstwhile Huckabee supporters succeed in knocking John McCain out of the race to the benefit of Mr. Huckabee, Democrats will privately heave a sigh of relief. Of all the front runners in the GOP field, Sen. McCain would be the one who could appeal to a broader spectrum of independent voters than anyone else.

And if you think this sort of campaigning is desperate, dirty, and disgusting, just wait until the Democrats choose their nominee. This little primary battle will seem like a love-in.