Straight talk, no smiles

There's a sense of gloom in the McCain camp in the face of Bush's relentless attack strategy in South Carolina.

Published February 18, 2000 10:30AM (EST)

A few yards away from Sen. John McCain's wife, Cindy, and their four children, (ages 8 to 15), a man handed out flyers slamming Cindy for having "stole(n) ... drugs from a charity she directed and used them while mothering four young children."

The man gave his name as Phil Greazzo of New Hampshire, and he insisted he was in no way connected to the campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who has been trying to win ugly here in South Carolina. But McCain staffers didn't buy it. They've seen too much garbage hurled at their man.

There was a brief verbal confrontation. "Are you proud of yourself?!" one McCain staffer angrily berated the sewage-trader. "Go crawl back under your rock!" yelled another.

Greazzo insisted that he was there to preach the cause of drug law reform, and was not a partisan. As proof of his lack of affiliation with the Bush campaign, Greazzo claimed that he had similar leaflets about Bush in his car and that he was planning to distribute them at a Bush rally a few minutes later. But when a bunch of reporters went with him to his car to see the alleged anti-Bush pamphlets, there were none to be found. Later, though Greazzo had claimed he was on his way to a Bush event, a McCain staffer in fact spotted him at McCain's next event, an hour and a half drive away, in Charleston.

So what's going on here?

"There's so much stuff out there," says Michael Graham, a GOP consultant and morning talk show host on WSC-AM in Charleston. "Whether it's the organized phone calls targeting Cindy McCain for her drug addiction, or the organized phone calls about John McCain leaving his 'crippled' [first] wife."

Graham says that a friend of his, a pro-Confederate flag legislator, was phoned by Bush South Carolina spokesman Tucker Eskew and asked to sign a piece of direct mail about the issue. The piece would have been "something very similar to what went out yesterday" from the spontaneously generated McCain-bashing "Keep It Flying" Political Action Committee. If the Eskew-solicited mail was paid for by anyone other than the Bush campaign, such a piece could have been construed as "coordination" with a third-party group, which is a felony. But no one has any proof, and Eskew told Salon that Graham's story is "absolutely not true."

Graham is an unlikely Bush-basher. He doesn't support McCain because he has concerns about the former POW's temperament, and his conservative credentials include having worked on Pat Buchanan's 1992 campaign. Nevertheless, he says he is stunned by Bush's mean-spirited campaign. While driving upstate recently, he caught a little of the poison Bush-backers were spewing on Christian talk radio.

"It was everything except 'Do you know John McCain has a pentagram in his back yard? Have you seen his goat head?'" Graham reports. "It was all-out negative. There were no positives on Bush. They're trying to nuke McCain."

More significantly, Graham says that the divisive politics inherent to the GOP primary in the home state of legendary hatchet man Lee Atwater have turned Bush "into a fringe Republican candidate. What's he going to say when he gets to Ohio, Michigan or Illinois? This may be how you win South Carolina, but it's not how you win the presidency. My advice to Bush and McCain has always been, if you want to be president of the United States, lose South Carolina."

Indeed. Bush may very well win here on Saturday -- and polls certainly indicate that such an outcome is a distinct possibility -- but many see him leaving the Palmetto State wrapped in the Confederate flag with Bob Jones as his running mate.

Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a McCain backer, says that Bush has run so hard to the right here he may be "unelectable" should he become the party nominee. Though Graham -- a former House impeachment manager whose conservative credentials are unquestioned -- says that he'll vote for Bush if he wins the nomination, he will clearly do so with little joy.

For his part, McCain is trying to keep his campaign positive, even if trickles of doubt seep from his rhetoric.

"If we win tomorrow, and we will win, [then] there's no way we can be stopped," he said at a juiced but underwhelmingly attended event at the College of Charleston early Friday afternoon. He told the audience that he has no regrets about running a positive campaign, unlike his opponent. "But that's OK," he told the young crowd. "They'll have to live with that. I can look you in the eye and say I wanted to be president of the United States not in the worst way, but in the best way."

And earlier on McCain's bus -- the "Straight Talk Express" -- many reporters interpreted his forward-looking remarks as a harbinger of the previous night's tracking polls, which were reportedly so disastrous some on the McCain staff are convinced that something was wrong with the sample.

"Whatever happens, this race will be decided on March 7," McCain said, referring to the day many large states -- with more moderate Republican voters -- will hold their primaries including New York, California, Ohio, Georgia, Maryland and Massachusetts.

McCain also began talking about what sounded like his legacy. "Reform is now the theme of the Bush campaign," McCain said, though later he insisted that, as the leader of the reform movement, he was the logical leader to take up the fight.

No matter how many times reporters offered him opportunities to bash Bush, McCain refrained. We asked about Bush's campaign finance reform proposal, which does nothing about individual soft money contributions. We asked about the fact that "reformer with results" Bush is running an ad touting a Texas patients' bill of rights bill -- without informing viewers that he vetoed the bill.

I even asked him if he would bash Bush if we all pooled our money and gave him $100.

"$200?" McCain joked, raising his eyebrows.

Throughout the "Straight Talk Express," staffers and McCain family members whispered about the vitriol poisoning "push-poll" phone calls in both South Carolina and Michigan, which will hold its primary on Tuesday. One anecdote has a push-poller bad-mouthing the McCains for having a "black child in their family" -- a reference to the McCains' adopted 8-year-old daughter Bridget, a former resident of Mother Theresa's orphanage in Bangladesh.

McCain campaign strategists like political director "Sunny" John Weaver, Senate chief of staff Mark Salter and campaign manager Rick Davis, were visibly down Friday. Having made a major move to bring Democrats and independents into the GOP primary to vote for McCain, they were hoping -- praying -- for high turnout Saturday. If more than 400,000 voters turn out, they can win, they predicted. But South Carolina voter turnout is historically low.

"What's the weather going to be like tomorrow?" McCain asked Lindsey Graham. Graham reported that it should be sunny with scattered showers.

One of McCain's young sons suggested that the bus view a recent "Saturday Night Live" sketch which featured cast members portraying Vice President Al Gore, Sen. Bill Bradley, McCain, Bush and commentator Alan Keyes regrouping in a hotel lobby right after the New Hampshire primary. The skit mocked Bradley's heart, Gore's mendacity, Bush's frat-boy idiocy and McCain's temper and POW baggage. Everyone loved the sketch, especially the McCains. And especially the parts about McCain.

"How about when 'Bush' said, 'Oh were you a veteran? I hadn't heard!'" One McCain kid said to another. They regaled each other for awhile with their favorite lines.

"I guess I know I've arrived," McCain said of his portrayal on "SNL."

Radio host Michael Graham thinks Bush will win on Saturday, but says he's run an "idiotic campaign." Bush has run so hard right, and so negative, he sees no way for Bush to avoid trouble nationally.

Why bother trying to appeal to South Carolinians, Michael Graham asks. "These voters should not be trusted with ballot boxes," he says. "You can see it when the country was asking why did George Bush go to Bob Jones. It's because no one in South Carolina thought there was anything weird about it! It's normal to them! When they went to [South Carolina House Speaker pro tempore and McCain-backer] Terry Haskins to ask what he thought of Bush's Bob Jones visit, I thought he'd tee off. But you know what he said? 'I went to Bob Jones! I love Bob Jones!'"

"The best thing about McCain winning -- which he won't -- is what it would say about the voters," Michael Graham says. "George Bush has run the dumbest campaign I've ever seen in this state." But, he adds cynically, according to exit polls from the New Hampshire primary the higher a voter's education level, the less likely he is to vote for Bush.

"John McCain is doomed in South Carolina, where illiteracy is the norm," Graham says. "If you use that line in your story, put in parentheses that 'illiteracy' means that you don't know how to read."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.