On the bloody political battlefields of South Carolina, where memories of the brutal attacks on Senator John McCain in 2000 are still fresh, there are already signs of nasty and false attacks against other candidates as the presidential campaigns descend on this state.
Mudslinging in South Carolina began even before Christmas. Nearly 4,000 South Carolinians received bogus Christmas cards purporting to be from Mitt Romney that endorsed polygamy and talked about the “exceedingly fair and white” Virgin Mary.
All the cards were postmarked from South Carolina, but featured a photograph of the Boston Public Garden and said, falsely, that they were being sent by a Mormon temple in Boston.
Then there was PhoneyFred.org, a Web site that featured pictures of Fred D. Thompson in frilly clothes and said that he was “once a pro-choice skirt chaser.” That site was later taken down, after protests from the Thompson campaign.
At the moment, e-mail is flooding into South Carolina — after having appeared in Iowa and New Hampshire — alleging that Senator Barack Obama is Muslim, which he is not, and questioning his patriotism, based on a photograph in which he does not have his hand over his heart as the national anthem is being played.
South Carolina has had a long, and infamous, tradition of hardball political attacks, involving scurrilous allegations and whispering campaigns that, while false, are hard to disprove and politically damaging. With the Republican primary coming on Saturday and the Democratic primary seven days later, mud is in full swing.
Some of these attacks are from identifiable groups, like the ones on Mr. Romney from organizations critical of his position on abortion, which has gone from support to opposition. But others, often scurrilous and personal, float through the Internet and along telephone lines from anonymous sources and are impossible to trace.
On the Democratic side, the most spirited defensive effort is being waged by the Obama campaign after an increase in e-mail falsely stating that Mr. Obama attended a radical Islamic school as a child in Indonesia, and that his parents raised him as a Muslim so he could run for president and subvert the government.
In fact, Mr. Obama is a Christian and attended a nonreligious public school in Indonesia.
B. J. Welborn, a volunteer for Mr. Obama, said that she had recently noticed more comments about Mr. Obama’s supposed Muslim ties when making phone calls on his behalf.
“We don’t know where it is coming from,” Ms. Welborn said. “We have a lot of fact sheets, and we direct people to the Obama Web site. But some people just don’t want to listen.”
The Obama campaign has asked its supporters to forward any e-mail messages they get along these lines to the campaign itself. In turn, the campaign will collect the e-mail addresses of the senders and forward the sender a “fact sheet” to rebut the false claims.
Democrats are learning their lessons from the Swift boat attacks against Senator John Kerry in 2004, when many in the party thought that Democrats were slow and tepid in responding to the attacks.
“We are less concerned about chasing ghosts on the Internet,” said Josh Earnest, a spokesman for the Obama campaign here, “than ensuring that the pernicious attacks don’t gain any credibility with the voting public.”
Among Republicans, Mike Huckabee is a target of attacks from two groups in particular. Perhaps the most emotionally charged attacks are television advertisements from a group called Victims Voice, whose political connections are not known. The spots feature the mother of a young woman who was raped and killed by a convict who was paroled while Mr. Huckabee was governor of Arkansas and whose prison release Mr. Huckabee had agreed to.
The commercials are being broadcast in South Carolina and on the Internet and were shown during a Fox News debate. On them, Lois Davidson, the mother, says, “If not for Mike Huckabee, Wayne Dumond would be in prison and Carol Sue would be with us.”
In addition, the Club for Growth, an antitax group based in Washington that has spent $780,000 so far in anti-Huckabee television spots in primary and caucus states, held a news conference in front of the State Capitol on Wednesday. In it, Dick Armey, the former Republican House majority leader, assailed Mr. Huckabee as a “misguided populist” and not a true conservative.
In response, a planeload of Arkansas businessmen flew here to hold their own news conference to praise Mr. Huckabee and attack the Club for Growth as a tool of the Romney campaign, a charge that the club denies.
Citing donations from Romney supporters to the club, the businessmen issued a news release saying: “What does $585,000 buy you? It bought Mitt Romney backers a smear job against Mike Huckabee orchestrated by Beltway insiders.”
With so many charges and countercharges flying around, Mr. Huckabee’s campaign, like Mr. McCain’s, has even set up a so-called Truth Squad section on its Web site to respond to each attack. As of Wednesday evening, there were 17 responses on the site.
“Any time there is something that is not true,” said Mike Campbell, chairman of the Huckabee campaign in South Carolina, “we go out and put up the actual facts.”
The Romney campaign braced itself for the rough-and-tumble politics of South Carolina by hiring Warren Tompkins, a legendary tough-playing Republican strategist, as its South Carolina adviser. Mr. Tompkins worked for the Bush campaign in South Carolina in 2000 and was often blamed for the anti-McCain smears.
In an interview on Tuesday, he repeated his denial of any involvement in the attacks.
Yet while Mr. Tompkins is no stranger to hardball politics, he counseled the Romney campaign to remain silent when the bogus Christmas cards began circulating in South Carolina.
“He had already made his speech on religion, and the less that was said, the better off he was,” Mr. Tompkins said, from his office with its expansive view of the State Capitol. “If you have a perceived liability, why bring attention to that perceived liability when you have already taken steps to mitigate against it? Not talking about religion was better for us.”
There are signs that South Carolina voters, weary after years of these attacks, may be tuning them out.
“I just don’t like it,” said Donna Watson, a Republican voter from Columbia. “It’s a waste of money. I’m not stupid. I don’t need to be reminded of all this stuff. All of us have skeletons in our closet. Let’s leave them there.”