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Never Go Naked To A Knife Fight: Fair Warning About South Carolina

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U.S. Sen. John McCain soundly defeated Texas Gov. George Bush in the Republican New Hampshire primary in January 2000 to become the frontrunner in the campaign to win the GOP's presidential nomination.

The Bush campaign knew it needed to win in South Carolina, the first primary in the South, to stop McCain. To do so, the Bush campaign stopped at nothing, running one of the ugliest campaigns in modern U.S. politics.

It used anonymous push polling to ask registered Republican voters if they would vote for McCain if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate black daughter. Fliers of McCain and his adopted Bangladeshi daughter were widely distributed. In addition, other push polls and fliers said that McCain's wife Cindy was a drug addict and that McCain, a decorated Vietnam veteran who spent years as a prisoner of war, was a traitor. Other accounts claimed that McCain was also a homosexual and/or mentally unstable.

To exacerbate things, McCain had promised that he wouldn't use attack ads in South Carolina. The statement, however well meaning, was self-defeating, violating the conventional wisdom that one should never go naked to a knife fight. Bush won the South Carolina primary and eventually the GOP nomination, serving two terms as president.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who just won the New Hampshire primary, needs to keep in mind what happened to McCain in South Carolina or else he will find himself dazed and confused, and talking out of both sides of his mouth. Again.

To understand politics in South Carolina, one needs to be aware of the quote from the Unionist James Louis Petigru who responded to the state's decision to secede from the United States in December 1860 by saying, "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum."

Four years earlier, on March 22, 1856, Preston Brooks, a Congressman from South Carolina responded to an attack on slavery by U.S. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by nearly beating him to death in the Senate chamber. The defenseless Sumner, whose legs were trapped under his desk, could not escape. It took three years for him to recover from his wounds. Brooks received a hero's welcome when he next returned to South Carolina.

Brooks' tactics were relatively subtle (though more physical) when compared with other South Carolina politicians such as John C. Calhoun, Wade Hampton, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, Cotton Ed Smith, or Strom Thurmond.

The Bush campaign's character assassination of John McCain in South Carolina in 2000 owed its inspiration to Lee Atwater, another South Carolinian, who served as George H.W. Bush's campaign director when he ran for president against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988. Atwater used racism as a wedge issue to smear Dukakis by trying to connect him to Willie Horton, a black man who had raped a white woman while on a prison furlough. Conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote that Atwater distributed unfounded claims that Dukakis had been treated for mental illness and that his wife, Kitty, had once burned an American flag.

Bush was easily elected president. Among Atwater's assistants on the campaign was Bush's son, George W. As reward for his part in the success, Atwater became chairman of the Republican National Committee. According to Time magazine and other media sources, Atwater, working with then House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, circulated a memo that said Democratic Speaker of House Tom Foley was a homosexual.

"This is not politics," Republican Senate leader Bob Dole said in a speech on the Senate floor, "This is garbage."

In South Carolina, the two aren't mutually exclusive.

Christopher Lamb is a communication professor at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, and the author of five books. His fifth, "The Sound and Fury of Sarah Palin," is forthcoming in February. If you would like to contribute as a citizen journalist to The Huffington Post's coverage of American politics, please contact us at www.offthebus.org