South Carolina Contests Turn Nasty

Harsh campaigning reflects a brutal vetting process in the Palmetto State.

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COLUMBIA, S.C.—It's getting nasty down in Dixie.

As the presidential balloting approaches in the key state of South Carolina, the campaigns for both parties have turned sharply negative. One reason is that the stakes are so high. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama need a victory to keep their momentum going on the Democratic side. So do John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson for the Republicans. (Rudy Giuliani isn't competing for the GOP nomination in South Carolina, preferring to put his resources into Florida, which holds its primary January 29, and states that hold their contests later.)

"They're getting ready to be very mean here, as usual," say a prominent Democratic leader in Columbia. Adds South Carolina Republican Chairman Katon Dawson: "We have a vetting process that is brutal."

With the Republican primary scheduled for this Saturday, and the Democratic primary the following weekend, perhaps a third of the electorate on both sides is undecided, and many other voters could change their minds before casting ballots, local party officials say.

Add the fact that for the past several presidential cycles, the GOP winner in South Carolina has gone on to win the party's nomination, and it's a recipe for the harshest state campaign yet in 2008. Even the issues are emotional, such as the economy, the Iraq war, healthcare, and, especially for Republican voters, illegal immigration.

The negativity has rapidly intensified, as it did in 2000 when John McCain was savaged by dirty tricks—such as false claims that he had fathered a black child out of wedlock—that contributed to his loss in the Palmetto State.

Recent examples of the negative trend:

• Robert Johnson, a Clinton supporter and founder of the BET cable TV network, said yesterday that Obama's campaign had distorted Clinton's remarks about how Martin Luther King Jr.'s goal of civil rights legislation was not achieved until Lyndon Johnson became president. Some black leaders took offense at Clinton's remarks as belittling King's accomplishments. The whole issue was wrapped up in efforts by both campaigns to court black voters in South Carolina.

• Johnson, speaking at Columbia College, also seemed to raise the issue of Obama's admitted teenage drug use when he said Bill and Hillary Clinton were working for civil rights "when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood—I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in his book." This was taken by Obama supporters as a reference to Obama's memoir, Dreams From My Father, in which he admitted using marijuana and sometimes cocaine in his youth. Johnson later insisted he was referring to Obama's community organizing in Chicago, not drug use.

• Bill Clinton caused a furor when he said last week that Obama's arguments that he opposed the Iraq war from the start—and by implication Obama's overall message of hope and change—were a "fairy tale." This resulted in a rebuke of the Clintons from Rep. James Clyburn, a senior black legislator from South Carolina who has been neutral in the Democratic race. "It is one thing to run a campaign and be respectful of everyone's motives and actions, and it is something else to denigrate those," Clyburn said. "That bothered me a great deal."

• A controversial "Christmas card" arrived in the mailboxes of Republican operatives over the holidays, falsely claiming to be from Romney. It included references to his Mormon faith. One reference said God favored polygamy (a practice that the Mormon Church abandoned long ago); another reference praised the Virgin Mary because she was "exceedingly fair and white." The mailing was seen as a way to remind GOP activists of Romney's religion, which many conservative Christians consider a big vulnerability or a cult.