Volunteers making telephone calls for Senator John McCain in South Carolina last weekend noticed something odd: Four people contacted said in remarkably similar language that they opposed Mr. McCain for president because of his 1980 divorce from his first wife, Carol, who raised the couple’s three children while Mr. McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
By Tuesday afternoon, a group calling itself Vietnam Veterans Against McCain had sent out a crude flier accusing the candidate of selling out fellow P.O.W.’s to save himself.
By Tuesday evening, 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.)
Hard lessons learned
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.”
‘We will not let it go’
Mr. McCain, who has acknowledged that the attacks in 2000 and his subsequent loss in South Carolina left him feeling angry and sorry for himself, now seems more determined to fight back aggressively in a state that once again could play a big part in determining the fate of his candidacy.
“We hear that phone calls are being made,” he told reporters on his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, on Wednesday afternoon. “We will not let it go this time.”
On Wednesday, within hours of the start of the automated calls, Mr. McCain’s South Carolina headquarters fired off thousands of e-mail messages with a statement from Henry McMaster, the state’s attorney general. “Allow me to set the record straight,” Mr. McMaster, a McCain supporter, said. “In the U.S. Senate, John McCain has been an unwavering voice for the rights of the unborn.” (Mr. McCain is a longtime opponent of abortion, but he supports research on stem cells gathered from embryos.)
On Tuesday, within hours of the first reports of the veterans’ flier, Mr. McCain’s campaign held a conference call with reporters to denounce the mailing, which showed a cartoon of Mr. McCain in a prison cell. Writing on the wall behind him said “Elect Me, Elect Me, P.O.W. for President” and “An Enormous Crime, The P.O.W.’s I Helped Leave Behind.”
Orson Swindle, a former prisoner of war with Mr. McCain in Vietnam, also issued a statement on Tuesday calling the flier a “vicious” fraud. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” the statement said. “I know because I was there. The truth is, the North Vietnamese offered John McCain early release, and he refused.”
And on Saturday night, within hours after Mr. McCain’s advisers learned of the people who objected to Mr. McCain’s divorce, his campaign sent out an e-mail alert to thousands of South Carolina supporters warning them of a potential dirty tricks campaign and advising them to call a McCain Truth Hot Line if they learned anything more.
“It’s a fancy name for a dedicated cellphone,” said Buzz Jacobs, the state director of Mr. McCain’s South Carolina campaign.
It is not clear who was behind the comments about Mr. McCain’s divorce, but the two other attacks can be directly traced to groups claiming credit, who seem primarily to attack at the time of presidential campaigns.
Common Sense Issues, the group attacking Mr. McCain about unborn children, is run by Patrick Davis, who was the political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2004. In a telephone interview on Wednesday from his base in Colorado Springs, Mr. Davis said that he started the automated phone calls in South Carolina on Tuesday night, shortly before the polls closed in Michigan’s primary, and that they were directed against Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, and Fred D. Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee, as well as Mr. McCain.
Mr. Davis, who organized similar automated calls in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, agreed to let a reporter listen to one of them. The call first asked whom the listener was supporting in the primary. If the listener said Mr. McCain, the automated voice said that not only did Mr. McCain support research on “unborn babies,” but that in writing the McCain-Feingold bill tightening rules on campaign donations, Mr. McCain had created “the most restrictive assault on free speech ever passed in America.”
The call referred to the bill as the “McCain-Feingold-Thompson law,” evidently because Mr. Thompson had also backed it.
Mr. McMaster, South Carolina’s attorney general, said that his office was investigating whether some of the phone calls violated a state law that prohibits making automated calls directly to people and not to just their answering machines.
Vietnam Veterans Against McCain is led by Gerard W. Kiley, who led a similar effort against Senator John Kerry’s Democratic presidential campaign in 2004. Reached Wednesday at his home in Garnerville, N.Y., in Rockland County, Mr. Kiley said that he was effectively the only member of his group and that “we really don’t have any money to speak of.” Mr. Kiley said he thought Mr. McCain gave up too much information to the North Vietnamese and was wrongly claimed as a war hero.
Mr. Kiley, 61, a Vietnam veteran, said that he had worked for the past four decades for a major New York corporation that he declined to name.
Mr. Kiley said that his flier had been distributed by U.S. Veteran Dispatch, an online newspaper published by Ted Sampley, who did not return a telephone call on Wednesday afternoon. It was unclear how widely the flier was distributed.
Flag flap dogs McCain
On Wednesday, Mr. McCain was greeted in South Carolina by people waving Confederate flags. They passed out fliers saying that he had “joined with the enemies of South Carolina history & heritage, calling for removal of the battle flag from the South Carolina Capitol Dome.”
In 2000, Mr. McCain called the flag offensive and a “symbol of racism and slavery” but he later backed off and called it “a symbol of heritage.” Mr. McCain later said he regretted the shift, conceding that “I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary,” and that “I chose to compromise my principles.”
This time, Mr. McCain is hoping that his “truth squad” and network of supporters will back him up. One of them is Mr. McCain’s good friend Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who was one of the few from the state’s political class to support Mr. McCain in 2000.
“I told him, ‘John, it’s not going to be me and you against the world this time,’” Mr. Graham said.
Michael Cooper contributed reporting from Spartanburg, S.C.