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South Carolina Smear Campaigns Turn High-Tech

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South Carolina Smear Campaigns Turn High-Tech

Election 2008

South Carolina Smear Campaigns Turn High-Tech

South Carolina Smear Campaigns Turn High-Tech

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If you like your political smear jobs exotic and exaggerated, you'll love a state where the holiday season inspires mass mailings of fake Christmas cards, purportedly from Republican candidate Mitt Romney. The fake cards extol polygamy, a long discarded practice of Romney's Mormon faith.

Is that not nasty enough for you?

How about the recent targeting of Republican candidate, John McCain, by leaflets that say he betrayed his fellow prisoners of war during Vietnam?

"I see people besmirching the honor and character and integrity and loyalty and courage of John McCain," said Orson Swindle, who served in the same cell as the Arizona senator for two years. It makes Swindle wonder why South Carolina is such a bastion of the political hit job.

South Carolina is known as the state that perfected the art. McCain's presidential campaign ran aground in the 2000 primary there, when he was the victim of other smears on his character. This year, the practitioners are taking aim with increasingly sophisticated electronic techniques.

One theory about the state's infamous reputation is put forth by South Carolina Republican political operative, Rod Shealy Sr. Shealy was a protege of another Republican operative, Lee Atwater.

"Make no mistake," Shealy said. "The consultants here in South Carolina know how to run a negative campaign. We all trained directly or indirectly from the legendary Lee Atwater, who was a master."

Shealy said it isn't that the state is so rough; it's that the stakes are so high.

"This becomes a do-or-die state for most of the field, after Iowa or New Hampshire. The field usually has become narrowed, and it becomes very much a matter of win or leave," he said.

In South Carolina during this election cycle, computerized phone calls have asked recipients to take a survey. Those who say they are voting for former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson in Saturday's Republican primary were then asked this question:

"Does the fact that former Sen. Fred Thompson refuses to sign the no new tax pledge, and that Gov. Huckabee supported the Bush tax cuts and is supporting a fair tax reform, make you more likely to support Gov. Huckabee on the issue of tax relief?"

Voters who say they supported McCain or Romney heard questions designed to undermine those candidates too; it's a tactic called a "push poll," which is essentially a phone survey used to spread misinformation.

Alan Teitleman is a 23-year-old Republican who recorded one of these "push poll" calls that came to his home in Ruby, S.C. He says that putting out negative campaign messages is a tacky way to build up a candidate.

Huckabee also decried such tactics in an interview with NPR saying, "To me, of all of the things that are done, push polling is the most offensive to me. I think it is just disingenuous. People think they're being part of a poll, and they're actually being sold something."

The Huckabee supporter behind the more than 1 million calls that have gone out in recent days is Patrick Davis, executive director of Common Sense Inc., a group that is against taxes, abortion and compromises on illegal immigration.

Davis defended the phone calls: "By asking questions of people, it keeps them interested and wanting to answer questions on the survey."

Huckabee and Davis both told NPR that they have no ties to the push poll phone calls, which are forbidden under election law. But, Huckabee and Davis do have a common interest.

"Just like any campaign, we use every opportunity to reach a person who is important to us to achieve our end goal — which is, to get more like-minded folks to show up on Election Day," Davis said.

On the Democratic side, an e-mail that effectively slanders Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as a radical Muslim has gotten so much circulation that NBC'S Brian Williams asked him about it during a debate.

Joshua Dubois, an aide to Obama on religious issues, said the campaign responds swiftly each time it hears of someone getting the e-mail. But Republican operative, Rod Shealy, said people are becoming their own smear tacticians.

"Every one of those Americans has unwittingly become part of the negative campaign process," Shealy said. "Because of this new technology, negative campaigns have taken on a new style."

Shealy said he expects it to continue through Saturday's primary race.