Friday, July 18, 2008

McCain's Karma and the Genteel 2000 Republican Primary Campaign

James Carney resurrects fond memories of the 2000 Republican primary race in South Carolina. One does have to admire McCain's restraint at the time while at the same time marveling that the Senator ever thought it would pay off to embrace Bush as enthusiastically as he has the last couple of years.

After he upset an overconfident Bush by 19 points in New Hampshire, it appeared that McCain might take South Carolina too, ending Bush's bid. In a Greenville, S.C., hotel room the day after his New Hampshire loss, Bush's high command agreed to attack McCain as a double-talking Washington insider and closet liberal. They also discussed the help they could expect from outside groups not legally permitted to coordinate with the campaign. Said a Bush adviser: "We gotta hit him hard."

They did. While the campaign itself launched a fusillade of negative attacks, a network of murky anti-McCain groups ran push polls spreading lies about McCain's record. They papered the state with leaflets claiming, among other things, that Cindy McCain was a drug addict and John had fathered a black child out of wedlock, complete with a family photograph. The dark-skinned girl in the photo was, in fact, the McCains' daughter Bridget, whom they adopted as an infant after Cindy met her on a charity mission at Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh. It was, even by G.O.P. standards, unusually foul stuff.

Up to that point in the campaign, McCain had been more or less ambivalent about Bush personally. "He thought Bush was a lightweight but a nice enough guy," says a close McCain associate. That ended in South Carolina. During a commercial break in a debate there, Bush put his hand on McCain's arm and swore he had nothing to do with the slander being thrown at his opponent. "Don't give me that shit," McCain growled. "And take your hands off me."

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