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What Cooperstown is to baseball, what Nashville is to country music, South Carolina is to the political hit job. This year, practitioners of dirty tricks are using increasingly sophisticated electronic techniques.

NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: If you like your smears exotic and exaggerated, you'll love a state where the holiday-season-inspired mass mailings of fake Christmas cards, purportedly from Mitt Romney, that extolled polygamy, a long discarded practice of his Mormon faith.

That not nasty enough for you? How about the targeting of Republican candidate John McCain this month by leaflets that say he betrayed his fellow prisoners of war during Vietnam.

Orson Swindle served in the same cell as McCain for two years in Hanoi.

Mr. ORSON SWINDLE (Former Vietnam POW): I see people besmirching the honor and the character and the integrity and the loyalty and the courage of John McCain. My God.

FOLKENFLIK: McCain's campaign ran aground in South Carolina in 2000, a victim of other smears on his character.

Mr. SWINDLE: I asked somebody, I said, what is it that they come to South Carolina to do all this stuff?

FOLKENFLIK: Here's one theory about that.

Mr. ROD SHEALY SR. (Republican Political Operative): Make no mistake. The consultants here in South Carolina all know how to run negative campaigns. We all trained directly or indirectly from the legendary Lee Atwater, who was a master.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Atwater protege and bad boy Republican political operative, Rod Shealy Sr. But Shealy says it isn't that the state is so rough, it's that the stakes are so high.

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

FOLKENFLIK: This time around, computerized phone calls asked recipients to take a survey. Those who say they'll vote for former Senator Fred Thompson in Saturday's Republican primary were asked this question.

(Soundbite of recorded phone call)

Unidentified Man: Does the fact that former Sen. Fred Thompson refuses to sign the no new tax pledge and that Governor Huckabee has supported the Bush tax cuts and is proposing a fair tax reform that eliminates the IRS altogether make you more likely to trust Governor Huckabee on the issue of tax relief?

FOLKENFLIK: Those who said they were backing McCain or Romney heard questions designed to undermine those candidates too. It's a tactic called a push poll, a phony survey used to spread misinformation. Alan Teitleman is a 23-year-old Republican who recorded that call to his home in Ruby, South Carolina.

Mr. ALAN TEITLEMAN (Republican Voter, South Carolina): To get your message out that way and to be so negative and to have to tear down every other opponent, you know, is just - is a bad way of trying to build yourself up.

FOLKENFLIK: Know who else says he doesn't like those calls? Huckabee himself, in the interview with NPR's MORNING EDITION this week.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Republican, Presidential Candidate): To me, of all of the things that are done, push polling is the most offensive to me because it's - I think it's disingenuous. People think they're being a part of a poll and they're actually being sold something.

FOLKENFLIK: The Huckabee supporter behind the calls - more than 1 million in recent days - is Patrick Davis. He's the executive director of Common Sense Issues, which is against high taxes, abortion, and compromise on illegal immigration. Patrick Davis.

Mr. PATRICK DAVIS (Executive Director, Common Sense Issues): By asking questions of people, it keeps them interested and wanting to answer the questions on the survey.

FOLKENFLIK: Huckabee and Davis both told NPR they have no ties - that would be forbidden under election law. But they sure do have a common interest.

Mr. DAVIS: Just like any campaign, we use every opportunity to try to reach people that we think are important to us to achieve our end goal, which is more like-minded folks showing up to vote on Election Day.

FOLKENFLIK: On the other side, an e-mail that effectively libels Democrat Barack Obama as a radical Muslim has gotten so much circulation that NBC'S Brian Williams asked him about it during a debate earlier this week.

Joshua DuBois, an aide to Senator Obama on religious issues, characterized its source this way.

Mr. JOSHUA DUBOIS (Religious Affairs Director, Obama Campaign): Unnamed individuals who are spreading anonymous and false smears.

FOLKENFLIK: He says the campaign responds swiftly each time it hears of someone getting the e-mail. But Republican operative Rod Shealy says people are becoming their own smear tacticians.

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

FOLKENFLIK: And he makes this promise. It'll continue right up until the end of tomorrow's vote.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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