The South Carolina Republican primary, Saturday, is more than a key political battle. It is also shaping up as unusual test of friendship.
The two leading contenders — Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — admire and like each other. But each man needs a win in South Carolina to drive his campaign forward.
McCain insists that when he squares off with Huckabee for the first time in a state in which both have a realistic chance a win, it will be different: no harsh exchanges on the stump. No negative ads.
McCain cites a joint appearance at a health-care forum in Iowa a few months ago as the paradigm for the kind of campaign he and Huckabee will wage.
"Huckabee and I, for two hours, talked about where we agreed and where we disagreed," McCain said as his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, rolled through central Michigan.
"At the end of that everybody stood and applauded. People came up and said, 'Hey, this is great. You guys disagree but you respect one another.' And I'm confident that I can have that kind of campaign with Huckabee."
Mutual admiration was forged in that encounter. In the ensuing months, they grew to like each other. On a personal level, McCain thinks Huckabee is a good guy. Both have a mischievous, offbeat sense of humor. As a politician, McCain was deeply impressed by Huckabee's debating skills and wit.
"At various forums and debates and other forums, I've gotten to know him and I've gotten to like him," McCain said. "I still think he's maybe proven debates matter. I really do. Probably one of the great lines of recent years was 'Jesus was too smart to run for public office.'"
The two men have stayed out of each other's way in Michigan where they and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are bunched together in the polls, with Romney slightly ahead. South Carolina is different. McCain needs to finish first there. It is even more critical if he loses in Michigan.
With a large population of evangelical Christian voters, South Carolina is also the kind of state where Huckabee needs to show he is strong. He desperately wants a W there to follow up his victory in the Iowa Caucus. Already Huckabee and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who must also do well in South Carolina, are scrapping with each other.
McCain has shown willingness to throw elbows when he has to. In New Hampshire, when he was desperate to win to keep his campaign alive and Romney was slamming him on immigration and taxes, he fired back with a television ad citing the Concord Record's description of Romney as "a phony" in its endorsement of McCain. At the ABC News/Facebook debate, McCain and Romney had a sharp, protracted clash over the immigration issue, and McCain tossed in a few extra barbed remarks to boot.
Until now, the McCain and Huckabee camps have been almost fraternal. At McCain headquarters the night of the New Hampshire primary, a campaign video was played on the big screen behind the podium as the early returns were coming in. When Huckabee appeared on screen, applause erupted.
Several times, the two campaigns even seem to have come to the aid of each other. In the run-up to the Iowa caucus, when Romney was hitting Huckabee hard with negative ads, McCain's campaign issued a press release condemning Romney.
At the Fox News Forum two days before the New Hampshire primary, when McCain was locked in a tight race with Romney, Huckabee, who was trailing both, went after Romney right out of the gate.
Incidents like these have led to speculation about a McCain-Huckabee mutual assistance pact.
Jill Hazelbaker, McCain's communications director, says there is no such political arrangement, just a genuine friendship.
"It's sincere, not some sort of 'alliance' as the media suggests at times," she said in an e-mail. "He [McCain] likes him very much and admires his talents."
McCain often asserts that attack-style campaigning is distasteful and, as a practical matter, that it runs the risk of backfiring by turning off voters. When Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani were blasting Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., in the fall, McCain laid off, refusing to "degrade or ridicule" her.
According to recent polls, McCain holds a modest lead over Huckabee in South Carolina. With so much at stake, both men may be tempted to heat up the rhetoric or even go negative on the airwaves.
As Newsweek put it: "Will the mutual back-scratching end and the attack ads begin? Will McCain and Huckabee become the very thing they profess to abhor while savaging each other? Once victory and power seem possible, there is a temptation to pick up the old cudgels of politics."
McCain vows that won't happen.