COLUMBIA, S.C. – They slide into mailboxes, slither under windshield wipers, lurk in the stack of free circulars outside the supermarket and invade voters’ homes with rancorous robotic phone calls.
When it comes to dirty tricks and attack ads, the political gutter doesn’t get much muddier or deeper than it does in the mannerly Palmetto State – and the sludge-slinging is escalating just before the nation’s first-in-the-South GOP presidential primary on Saturday.
What had been a relatively civil primary season by South Carolina standards abruptly has, in many ways, turned into a race to the bottom. Some attacks are overtly traded between campaigns. Some come from interest groups. Still others, often the most insidious, appear to bear no fingerprints at all.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose last presidential bid was torpedoed by an 11th-hour smear campaign here in 2000, has launched a “Truth Squad” to counter a spate of disparaging, crudely printed mailers from Vietnam Veterans Against McCain. The group charges that he distorted his military record and put his own well-being before that of his fellow POWs during the five years he was tortured and imprisoned in Hanoi.
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson accuses former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee of making calls to deceive voters about Thompson’s positions on abortion, illegal immigration and marriage.
Huckabee has been the target of ads by Victims Voice, an organization critical of his prison release policies as governor of Arkansas. The group blames him for the early release of Wayne Dumond, a convicted rapist who raped and murdered a woman after he left prison.
Meanwhile, Huckabee charges Romney with orchestrating a campaign to smear him as a faux conservative and pro-tax liberal through ads run by the anti-tax group Club for Growth.
The Romney campaign, which has been the target of some anti-Mormon attacks, said it received 250 calls from voters on Wednesday alone complaining about anti-Romney push-polls, a method used to smear candidates by raising negative questions about them while purporting to sample opinion.