It's 2 a.m. in a hotel bar and a bunch of campaign staffers for Arizona Sen. John McCain are shaking their heads in disbelief. They knew South Carolina was going to get ugly. They didn't know it was going to get this ugly.
They knew that Texas Gov. George W. Bush came from a family where an ability to compartmentalize dirty mercenary politics was as much a part of the family DNA as a stiff upper lip and a proclivity for prep schools. And make no mistake -- these are men who understand politics and tactics, and who are aware of their boss's myriad imperfections. They knew Bush's raison d'jtre was winning. They also knew the raison d'jtre of many party partisans was to make sure Bush wins.
Still, they are somewhat incredulous.
Both Bush and McCain have run TV ads slamming the other man, and McCain's ad -- in which he compared Bush's trustworthiness to Clinton's -- certainly didn't help his campaign any. He's taken his shots at Bush here and there, but there's a lot more going on below the radar, free from the TV cameras.
Just ask Bush. On Saturday he spoke with South Carolina state Sen. Mike Fair at Seawell's Restaurant in a conversation furtively caught by a C-Span camera and boom mike. Neither man appeared to know he was on camera. Which is, as Allen Funt first taught us, the way you find out who people truly are.
"I have no explanation as to why some of the religious conservatives, particularly, are with that guy," Fair said, presumably referring to McCain, just a few days before Gary Bauer endorsed the candidate. "You haven't even hit his soft spots."
"I know," Bush said. "I'm going to."
"Well they need to be, somebody ..."
"Exposed," Bush said, finishing Fair's sentence.
"Somebody does, anyway," Fair continued.
"I agree," Bush said, ominously. "I'm not going to do it on TV."
After Bush lost New Hampshire, his team regrouped and decided it needed to hit back at McCain. Predictable enough. But let's not forget that Willie Horton was introduced to the world not by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign but by one of those bogus "third party" groups. And the apple apparently doesn't fall far from the bush.
As first reported by Time, the Bush campaign went into South Carolina wondering who could be counted on to do its dirty work.
"At some point the discussion turned to who could be counted on to fire which volleys," wrote Time reporter Jay Carney of a post-New Hampshire Bush campaign meeting. "Several outside groups, including the National Right to Life Committee, Americans for Tax Reform and the tobacco lobby were mentioned. 'Right to Life will do radio, ATR will do TV ads,' said one of Bush's South Carolina advisers. 'ATR will come down with whatever we need.' No one in the meeting suggested that the campaign was or should be coordinating with these outside groups. Coordination is illegal, but it is also in the eye of the beholder, and the discussion revolved around the idea that these third-party ad campaigns would benefit Bush's effort."
Official coordination with third-party groups is a felony. And the Time article provided ample plausible deniability for the Bushies.
But Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a McCain supporter and former House impeachment manager, is convinced Bush is behind much of the gutter tactics being deployed.
"We have information that certain preachers, believe it or not, are e-mailing their parishioners with information provided by the Bush campaign about John's personal life and his political record that is just absolutely mean and hateful," Graham said. "It's everywhere."
Graham wasn't able to provide documentation for his charges. The Bush campaign denies them.
And there's no way to pin the pure ugliness of this campaign against McCain on the Bush team. Politics breeds partisans, and whether any groups coordinating the smear campaigns are working with direction from the Bush campaign or out of their own zealous desire to see their guy win is impossible to say.
The tactics so far, after all, have been sophomoric enough that anybody could have thought of them. For example, there's the constant barrage of "push polls" -- the term of art for polls in which the purpose is not so much to gauge a voter's opinion as to spread dirt about an opponent, usually of the most unseemly kind.
South Carolina was home to one of the ugliest push polls in national history, of course, done on behalf of Bush buddy ex-Gov. Carroll Campbell, during his 1978 race for the House against Max Heller. The push polls revealed that Heller would be hurt if voters learned that he was, according to the New York Times, "a foreign-born Jew who did not believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior."
The push polls made against McCain -- by who knows whom on behalf of who knows what -- weren't necessarily as ugly, though who knows what they might have been were McCain not just another old Christian white guy.
But the phone calls have also certainly backfired, with some not interested in associating with the Bush supporters -- rogue or otherwise -- making the phone calls.
Carolyn Whitney, a 66-year-old retired psychiatric nurse in Summerville, S.C., is a lifelong Republican who worked for Bush's dad in 1980. But last week a woman identifying herself with a group called something like "South Carolina Families for Bush," Whitney says, phoned her.
"They said they wanted to let me know that George Bush was pro-life and he would protect babies and that John McCain is a killer of babies," Whitney recalls. The caller accused McCain -- who has a 17-year pro-life voting record that has never dipped below its 80 percent rating by National Right to Life Committee tabulations -- of being just the opposite. "They said he votes for abortion on demand and is going to have [pro-choice ex-New Hampshire Sen. Warren] Rudman as his attorney general."
Whitney hung up. "It reinforced my decision that I don't think George Bush is ready to be president."
Then came the e-mail, first reported by CNN's Jonathan Karl on Tuesday evening, from Bob Jones University professor Richard Hand, saying that McCain "chose to focus his life on partying, playing, drinking and womanizing." In the e-mail Hand, with not an iota of evidence, also claimed that McCain "chose to sire children without marriage."
And on Tuesday, a new political action committee called Keep It Flying was born -- its cause the Confederate flag. Now both Bush and McCain are a little squishy on the flag; both have retreated into the comfort of calling it a states' rights issue. But Keep It Flying has decided that there's a world of difference between the two men's takes, and the mysterious, spontaneously generated organization is now running around spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to tell South Carolina that McCain's a Yankee-lovin' rebel hater.
Which may be just as bad -- at least to the voters Bush is trying to appeal to -- as a homo lover, clearly the message Bush was trying to make during Tuesday night's debate when he winkingly -- and falsely -- told the television audience that McCain had been endorsed by a gay Republican group, the Log Cabin Republicans.
"He knows it's not true," says Kevin Ivers, director of public affairs for the Log Cabin Republicans. "And it's a shame that his campaign has degenerated into this. He had an incredible opportunity to unify the party six or seven months ago, and it seems that because of their strategy in South Carolina they've just blown it."
Bush has gays affiliated with his campaign, after all, like Bush delegate D.C. Councilman David Catania and delegate alternate Carl Schmid, a lobbyist who's on the board of the Human Rights Campaign.
"They went from compassionate conservatism to just downright mean," says Graham. "The persona of George Bush nationally has changed in South Carolina. He will leave this state not the guy he was when he came. It's a campaign that lost its way after New Hampshire."
On "Meet the Press" Sunday, Bush acknowledged how he recently got in touch with his dark side.
"I came up in Texas politics. I understand," Bush said.
"What does that mean?" host Tim Russert asked.
"Well, it means I understand the rough and tumble of politics," Bush responded. "And I understand how to defend myself, and I'm going to do so."
McCain has treaded down that path as well, of course. McCain's TV ad that compared Bush to Clinton certainly pulled no punches. Wary of the fate that befell fellow insurgent Sen. Bill Bradley when he didn't respond to the shit storm Vice President Al Gore flushed upon him, McCain swore he would respond to Bush's attacks immediately and strongly. Additionally, McCain had always refrained from having anything but praise for Bush's National Guard service, and was infuriated that Bush had the temerity to attack him on the issue, as he did through surrogate Thomas Burch.
So the ad went up. Then, after even his friends told him that it went over the line, he took it down. According McCain, when he started hearing stories of just how ugly the campaign against him was becoming, he backed off completely. "We're running nothing but a positive campaign," McCain says now. "Our ads are going to be positive, our message is positive. And I promise you, that's not only for the rest of South Carolina but for the rest of this campaign."
McCain, ever the crafty, postmodern pol, has tried to turn his newfound refusal to go negative into a negative attack on Bush in itself. There are a number of reasons for this, beginning with the fact that the mud wrestling has hurt him more than it has hurt Bush and is likely to depress voter turnout, which will also help Bush -- not to mention the fact that he doesn't have the third-party groups in his corner.
But this is a huge gamble. As everyone in politics can tell you, negative campaigning works. The proof's in the polling: Since Bush first went on the attack -- standing next to a former Green Beret who erroneously slammed McCain for ignoring the plight of veterans -- his poll numbers have risen while McCain's have begun to sink. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll of likely primary voters, taken Friday through Sunday, had Bush with 49 percent, McCain with 42 percent and debate commentator Alan Keyes with 5 percent.
The poll showed that respondents held McCain and Bush equally responsible for the negative tone of the campaign. Tuesday night's debate probably didn't help any; both McCain and Bush were whiny and equally negative. Being negative was a bad move by McCain -- who had been advised to rise above that.
"This campaign took an ugly turn after New Hampshire," McCain said to a packed tent outside a Columbia synagogue Tuesday afternoon. "And by the way, I've been tried by experts, so I don't feel sorry for myself. I don't have any sympathy for me. But I was attacked, we were attacked, we responded and I saw that this campaign was starting to spiral down like a lot of other campaigns we have all observed." So he decided he wasn't going to play anymore.
But even as McCain spoke these words to the Jewish audience, McCain staffers anticipated that someone would start informing the state's sizable population of anti-Semites about McCain's visit. A paranoid thought, sure, but Bush does travel the state with former Gov. Campbell, who knows firsthand the benefits of Jew baiting.
All of this leaves a bad taste in Graham's mouth. "It's never been done at this level," he says. "If it works this time then we've set a course for our political future in the state ... because the next group of politicians will believe that this is what you have to do: push polling, distortions of record. This will be a bad thing in South Carolina if we legitimize this, because it will be our future."
During the CNN debate on Tuesday night, Bush took issue with McCain's assertion that he was the victim of most of the negativity. Brandishing a leaflet that he claimed was negative toward Bush, Bush accused McCain of hypocrisy. McCain disavowed knowing anything about it. He should have taken a look at the sheet because it wasn't a piece of negative literature, it was just a fairly innocuous, issue-based compare-and-contrast between the two candidates on the Social Security Trust Fund.
McCain's mistake? He took Bush at his word. And it seems reasonable now, with Bush at the very least not trying to stop the mud being hurled at McCain, to reexamine some of the front-runner's promises in the early stages of his campaign.
Wasn't he the one deriding "mud throwing and name calling" in a TV ad last fall? "Americans are sick of that kind of campaigning," Bush said, promising to run a "hopeful and optimistic and very positive" race.
Before that, in July in Indianapolis, Bush pledged to "carry a message of hope and renewal to every community in this country."
"We can, in our imperfect way, rise now and again to the example of St. Francis -- where there is hatred, sowing love; where there is darkness, shedding light; where there is despair, bringing hope."
That seems like a long time ago now.