Dirty Tricks Plague Southern Fried Republican Race

As Sen. John McCain campaigned in Aiken, S.C., today, negative attacks were very much on his mind.

"I think most South Carolinians think that there's no place in South Carolina politics for this kind of thing," McCain told reporters.

It was in the Palmetto State eight years ago, campaigning against then-Gov. George W. Bush, that McCain and his family were attacked in often personal terms in fliers, on radio, on television and in phone calls.

This time around, McCain and his allies are pushing back.

McCain backer Senator Lindsay Graham, the Republican who represents the state in the seat that was long held by the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., asked potential supporters, "Has anybody gotten a phone call? What I want you to do is chill this garbage."

Southern Fried Politics

South Carolina has a reputation for hardball politics.

"If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch," Warren Tompkins, a political consultant to Bush in 2000 who currently works for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

The 2008 political season has seen its share of rabid attacks. Katon Dawson, the state chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, received a Christmas card, reputedly from Romney.

"It's a fake card that had quotes out of the Book of Mormon, and it was a Christmas card from the Romneys and said 'Paid for by the Boston Tabernacle,' which it was not," Dawson said.

Another flier from a fringe veterans group questions McCain's Vietnam War heroism. McCain, a decorated veteran, spent five years in a prisoner of war camp in Hanoi.

McCain's campaign -- saying it learned its lesson in 2000 -- forcefully pushed back against the charges with a "truth squad".

But Tompkins says the McCain campaign has brought more attention to the attacks, which he calls minor, than they otherwise would have gotten.

"It looks like the truth squad needs to look in the mirror and have a debate with themselves, Tompkins said, "Because they're the ones bringing the stuff up and bringing attention to stuff that nobody knows anything about".

Tompkins also added that McCain's campaign was trying to make South Carolinians feel guilty about his 2000 loss by bringing up what he sees as minor attacks.

Thompson, Huckabee Trade Barbs

Meanwhile, automated phone calls have spread dirt across the state about former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's chief rivals, including McCain and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.

In the calls an unidentified voice says, "Sen. Fred Thompson did not make solving America's illegal immigration problem a priority."

Huckabee has publicly asked the group behind those calls to stop, but just two days before the primaries in South Carolina Thompson accused Huckabee of complicity in their use.

"I confronted him man to man, person to person, at the debates with regard to the issues. This is the response I get, anonymous stuff," Thompson said.

The effect of all these "dirty tricks" is difficult to ascertain because there are so many candidates.

"When you're in a crowded field, the thing is, you zero in on one person, the beneficiary of that is going to be the ones out of the fray," Tompkins said. "It's been a tightrope for all of us to walk."

At this point in a tight contest, it's a tightrope with no safety net with many political analysts speculating whether any of the candidates will fall when the votes are cast on Saturday.