Getting ugly

Battling in Florida courts, Bush calls on the same Southern strategists who launched a smear campaign against McCain in South Carolina.

Published November 14, 2000 9:00PM (EST)

At least three of the Southern strategists who helped Gov. George W. Bush score his ugly South Carolina primary win against Arizona Sen. John McCain have been dispatched to Florida to help Bush in his legal and political wrangling for the Sunshine State's 25 electoral votes.

Bush's South Carolina chief strategist Warren Tompkins, strategist Neal Rhodes and spokesman Tucker Eskew -- two of whom were thanked by Bush in his South Carolina victory speech -- are all on the ground in Florida, waging political war on the Texas governor's behalf. None played a major role in Bush's campaign outside South Carolina during the primaries. But all are veterans of the hardscrabble ways of Southern politics.

"When the going gets tough for Governor Bush, he turns to the darker side of our party," says one senior McCain advisor. "We saw that in South Carolina, and we see that today."

The Bush campaign did not return calls for comment.

After Bush lost the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary to McCain, he and his team made the tactical decision to get ugly in South Carolina. In the weeks leading up to the South Carolina primary on Feb. 19, McCain suffered one of the dirtiest personal smear campaigns in modern American political history.

"We play it different down here," one of Bush's top South Carolina advisors told Time magazine in February. "We're not dainty, if you get my drift. We're used to playin' rough."

Indeed. Push polls attacked McCain's personal life and exaggerated his role in the Keating savings and loan scandal. Leaflets slammed his wife, Cindy, for her past addiction to painkillers. An e-mail from a Bob Jones University professor accused McCain of fathering children out of wedlock. A mysterious public action committee in favor of the Confederate flag -- called "Keep it Flying" -- sprang up overnight and slammed McCain in 250,000 leaflets.

Bush engaged in his own delightful activities, appearing at Bob Jones and telling a Christian radio station, "An openly known homosexual is somebody who probably wouldn't share my philosophy."

The Bush team's charge into Florida is somewhat different, of course, waged as it is in the courts -- as well as the court of public opinion for the country as a whole and not just among Republican South Carolinians.

But the McCain strategist sees two clear parallels where Tompkins, Eskew and Rhodes are concerned.

One is that in Florida, as in South Carolina, Bush stalwarts have an interest in devaluing traditional Democratic voters. Jews and blacks in Palm Beach and Broward counties, for instance, who have complained about various ballot and voting irregularities, are dismissed by Bush surrogates and Bush's man in Tallahassee, former Secretary of State James Baker, every chance they get. Voters who misunderstood the "butterfly ballot" are called confused, stupid or worse.

"I'm sure that those Dixiecrats in South Carolina can rest assured that [Bush's South Carolina team] care deeply about the Holocaust survivors who accidentally voted for Pat Buchanan, or the black voters who were turned away at the polls," the McCain advisor says. "They can rest assured that they're being represented well."

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the South Carolina team's ruthlessness.

"They could care less how they get elected," says the advisor, pointing to the team's legal efforts against the hand counts. "It doesn't have anything to do with the democratic process -- that part's similar."

By Jake Tapper

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

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2000 Elections George W. Bush John Mccain