Down and dirty with the GOP down South

Vote buying, astroturfing, anonymous attacks -- the 2008 Republican contenders keep hitting each other below the belt in South Carolina.

Published April 23, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

Maybe it's the legacy of Lee Atwater. Maybe it's some lingering Confederate spunkiness. It might even be all the sweet tea. But one thing is unmistakably true: Republican Party politics in South Carolina is a down and dirty affair.

"We tried to explain to the folks in Boston early on that it's a little different here," says Terry Sullivan, a veteran political operative who is running former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in the Palmetto State. "It's kind of a knife fight."

Not that Sullivan, or anyone else for that matter, will admit to ever drawing a blade. That's part of the game. When you work in South Carolina, you pretend to take the high road, even as your allies conspire behind the scenes to bend or break the rules. They set up phony grass-roots groups, launch anonymous attacks and, as happened this weekend, pay money for straw poll votes. Everyone is usually on the attack, and few are as innocent as they claim.

On Friday night, tempers flared amid the die-hards of the Greenville County Republican Party, who gathered in the downtown expo center to prepare for Saturday's convention. All the major presidential candidates, with the notable exception of John McCain, were coming, and the party planned to stage a straw poll, an unscientific survey of the county's "delegates," which basically meant anyone who paid $15 and submitted some paperwork.

Straw polls in South Carolina are an obsession and a scourge for Republicans, the topic of endless press releases and meaningless chest thumping. They are easily corruptible. At some point on Friday night, Esther Wagner, the county GOP treasurer, spotted a Romney aide across the hall, and accused him of paying delegate fees to pump up Romney's poll numbers. Wagner's suspicions had been aroused earlier in the month, when she received a stack of last-minute registrations from about 15 to 20 people. Most of the fees had been paid in cash. "That is unusual," said Wagner, who has done work on the side for another candidate, John Cox, a minor rival to Romney. "Most people pay [by] check." Then she got a call from a Romney supporter named Jeff Lynch, who mentioned in passing that someone had paid his fee.

The women of the Greenville County Republican Party confronted the Romney aide with Wagner's allegations. "Chris Slick, who is Romney's grass-roots field coordinator, was emphatically denying it," says Betty Poe, the president of the Greenville County Republican Women's Club. According to three separate accounts of the incident, Slick maintained that neither the Romney campaign, nor any campaign staff, had paid delegate fees. "But he said an individual paid for someone," Poe remembers.

By midday Saturday, the upstate area was rife with rumors of a fixed straw poll. When I asked Sullivan, Romney's state advisor, if the campaign was paying for supporters' votes, he said, "No, absolutely not." But he admitted to recruiting people to the polls as so-called proxy delegates, which he said was a common practice among the campaigns. The campaign of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also admitted some "friend-to-friend" recruitment of delegates, but denied paying any delegate fees. A few hours later, I tracked down Lynch, a gospel musician, at his home in Greenville.

"We were delegates of Mitt Romney, so we didn't have to pay," Lynch said. Like thousands of South Carolinians, Lynch and his wife, Melissa, have been bombarded with direct mail from the presidential candidates. He sent back a card from Romney, saying he would like to help. Sometime later, he said, Slick, the Romney aide, showed up at his door, and told him not to worry about the money. "He came over and we signed papers to be delegates, so we wouldn't have to pay the $15 fee," Lynch said. "Is there a problem?"

The Greenville GOP has no rules barring a candidate, or anyone else, from paying a supporter's delegate fees, says Wendy Nanney, the outgoing chairman. But her concerns about the integrity of the straw poll have been growing. She has heard rumors that other campaigns had collected money for delegates. "It might be something we need to look at," she said. In the final tally, Romney won the Greenville poll, followed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and California Rep. Duncan Hunter. Huckabee also scored well at the Spartanburg County convention, where he was rated higher by delegates on the issues than Giuliani, Hunter or Romney, who finished in second, third and fourth place, respectively.

As for the Romney campaign, its representatives did not return my calls when I asked for a response to the Lynch story. Slick responded by e-mail, saying he could not speak on the record with a reporter. The campaign press shop in Boston, which is usually prompt to respond, was nowhere to be found.

Such shenanigans might not matter much, if it were not for the fact that South Carolina has picked every successful Republican nominee for president since 1980, when it solidified Ronald Reagan's Southern appeal. Sen. Bob Dole called the state a "firewall" that would have prevented him from getting the nomination in 1988, had he managed to survive the New Hampshire primary. In that same year, the Palmetto primary effectively killed the campaign of insurgent preacher-candidate Pat Robertson. It derailed the populist candidacy of Pat Buchanan in 1996. In 2000, John McCain's meteoric rise succumbed to a shower of negative attacks here, including anonymous push polls and leaflets that falsely accused him of fathering an illegitimate black child and televised attack ads approved by the campaign of President Bush.

"The person who wins the South Carolina primary generally becomes the nominee," explained South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a McCain supporter, after speaking Saturday at the Spartanburg County convention. "It's a test of a red state. It will be a real test of strength among conservatives in general. So you have to have your best game on."

No one has forgotten that Karl Rove's mentor, Lee Atwater, who authored the Willie Horton ads in 1988, earned his stripes in South Carolina politics. His take-no-prisoners legacy lives on. A couple of weeks ago, the McCain campaign released its first negative flier at an event in South Carolina, a one-pager first reported by the Washington Post, that selectively quoted Romney and Giuliani, portraying them as pro-choice, anti-gun, and pro-gay rights. This week, Hunter put out a negative flier in Spartanburg that accused McCain of backing amnesty for illegal aliens and Romney of supporting equality for gays and lesbians. Before speaking at the Spartanburg convention, Hunter defended the flier. "I think it's good," he told me. "I say the Republicans are good guys with strong differences. I simply point out voting records."

The most vicious signed attacks in South Carolina have come from the otherwise marginal campaign of John Cox, a quirky certified public accountant from Illinois, who speaks of his lesbian sister when he discusses his opposition to gay marriage, and claims his father raped his mother when he discusses his opposition to abortion. He has been distributing an eight-page flier that calls Romney "The Dukakis Republican," calls McCain "McKennedy," and calls Huckabee "The Tax-and-Spend/Soft on Crime Republican." Two weeks ago, the flier created a ruckus at the Charleston County convention, when Cindy Costa, a national committeewoman and Romney supporter, demanded that the fliers be barred from the room. "This is the kind of stuff that turns people off," Costa said, to no avail. When I saw Cox in Spartanburg on Friday, he was complaining about the fact that the New York Times will not cover his campaign.

But the best action in South Carolina politics occurs in the shadows, with carefully constructed deniability. Back in March, anonymous e-mails and unsigned mailers started appearing in Republican voters' homes, attacking Romney as a Mormon with "a secret," a bogus charge that amounted to some details about his great-grandfather's and great-great-grandfather's polygamist pasts. A veteran showed up in Spartanburg with a never-before-heard-of nonprofit called the "South Carolina Veterans Coalition," and then accused the local county chairman, Rick Beltram, of being a Romney patsy who planned to stack the deck in the upcoming county straw poll. At the straw poll itself, Beltram's teenage daughter burst into tears after being berated by a McCain campaign staffer, who was apparently concerned she was stealing votes.

Then there was the "Collegiate Republican" incident. State Sen. John Courson, a McCain supporter, says he got a call on a Friday afternoon in March from some self-described "College Republicans" at the University of South Carolina. They said their keynote convention speaker had dropped out, and asked if he could come by to speak. Since the university campus was on his way home, he dropped in, gave some welcoming remarks to a group of about 11 people, and then left. The next day, a group calling itself the "South Carolina Collegiate Republicans" put out a press release using Courson's name that claimed Romney had won its convention straw poll, with 53 percent of the votes.

It turned out that the "Collegiate" Republicans is a spinoff group from the officially authorized "College Republicans," organized with the help of a Romney campaign operative, in part because the Romney campaign is suspicious of McCain's ties to the leadership of the official state College Republicans. "Their whole purpose was to get on a press release," said Taylor Hall, the executive director of the official College Republicans, who denied any favoritism to McCain. Sen. Courson now acknowledges that he was duped by the "Collegiate" group, but he holds no hard feelings. This is how it goes in South Carolina. "We were the first state to secede from the union, the only state to go out unanimously," Courson told me. "It's a fun state."

Last week, South Carolina made headlines again when a heretofore anonymous tracker posted a carefully edited video online that showed McCain singing a parody of a Beach Boys song in a lighthearted response to a question about bombing Iran. The video promptly made its way to the Drudge Report and to a South Carolina blog called the Chaser, which often posts unflattering videos and allegations about McCain. The Chaser is run by a political operative named Tim Cameron, who works for the consulting firm Thompson Tompkins & Sullivan. Two of the named partners in that firm, Warren Tompkins and Terry Sullivan, now work for the Romney campaign, but Sullivan maintains that Cameron's work on the blog is totally independent from his work for the firm. "No relation," said Sullivan. "This blog is his, on his own."

There have been some efforts to limit the intra-party back stabbing. On Friday night, the Spartanburg County GOP held a hot dog cookout, billed as "Unity Rally," with about 40 party activists in a downtown park. Beltram, the county chairman, said he wanted to send a message that campaigns must minimize the negativity and pledge to support whomever wins the final nomination. The keynote speaker was Huckabee, who started in on his standard stump speech, after offering some words about working together to defeat the Democrats.

But about 15 minutes into the speech, as the sun set over a grassy Spartanburg knoll, he turned his words on at least one of his Republican opponents. "I didn't just recently come around to the idea that life begins at conception," he said. "I didn't just recently get converted to the notion that the Second Amendment is there so you can protect your family and your property, and so we can protect the nation."

Afterward, I asked Huckabee if it was fair to characterize those words as a thinly veiled attack on Romney, who joined the National Rifle Association and professed a commitment to pro-life policies in just the last few years. "What? What? No!" Huckabee responded, with a smile and a sarcastic tone. "I didn't call anybody out. I'm not going after anybody. I'm just stating the obvious."

So it goes down in South Carolina. It's a knife fight, after all, with no one holding a blade.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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2008 Elections John Mccain R-ariz. Mike Huckabee Mitt Romney