John McCain's bid for the White House eight years ago was largely derailed by a whispering campaign during the South Carolina primary that claimed his wife was a drug addict and his adopted daughter was the result of an out-of-wedlock affair.
Since Cindy McCain and her daughter were targeted so viciously eight years ago, observers were taken aback earlier this week when she called Sen. Barack Obama's 2008 campaign "the dirtiest campaign in American history."
The 2000 South Carolina GOP primary has earned a reputation as one of the sleaziest in recent memory. Through anonymous phone calls and fliers, opponents spread the rumor among the state's conservative Republican primary voters that Cindy McCain was a drug addict and the couple's daughter Bridget, adopted from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh, was fathered by McCain out of wedlock.
George W. Bush went on to win the South Carolina primary, which effectively ended McCain's campaign for the Republican nomination. At the time, McCain said, "It's very upsetting when something like that happens because it shakes your faith a little bit in people."
Given her role in being on the sharp end of one of the most notorious political smears in recent years, some wonder if she meant what she said this week about Obama's tactics or if she was simply caught up in the moment.
Cindy made the remark while addressing a group in Nashville, Tenn., as Obama's lead in the polls grew, threatening to defeat her husband's second bid for the White House.
The McCain campaign today said it stood by Cindy McCain's comments.
"Mrs. McCain made an observation that is based on irrefutable truth. She's entitled to it, and we stand behind it," said campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds.
Bounds would not cite specific tactics by the Obama campaign comparably dirty to those found in the 2000 primary, but one McCain camp official speaking on background pointed to attacks on McCain's age and running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
"Obama campaign spokespeople have compared Palin to a Nazi sympathizer and called her a secessionist, which we know is not true. They've unfairly dug into her past. They've used coded language for McCain's age. They've used McCain campaign staff people in advertising and accused them of being lobbyists. The smears today are comparable to 2000 in that they've used viral e-mails and attacked Palin's family," the official said.
Expert: Typical Campaign Hyperbole
Despite the campaign's insistence that Cindy McCain was earnest, observers point out that as campaigns go, 2008 is not nearly as dirty as they come.
"This is just typical campaign hyperbole," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
"We hear it every four years. American politics has always been dirty, and this is typical of the kind of talk you hear every four years. Poor Thomas Jefferson endured it 1800, and in 1828 Andrew Jackson had to contend with the opposition raising questions about the possibility that his wife was still married to another man at the time of their wedding," he said. "Of anybody out there, Cindy McCain knows what a dirty campaign looks like. South Carolina in 2000 was a real dirty campaign."
Sabato said candidates and their surrogates are often under stress and say things they might not really mean.
"Sometimes they get into the moment and don't have perspective because of all the stress. No campaign is completely clean, but I wouldn't call this particularly dirty."