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McCain faces the scene of his defeat

South Carolina helped crush the Republican's campaign in 2000. This time he has a new battle plan and a 'truth squad.'

January 10, 2008|Maeve Reston and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

CHARLESTON, S.C. — John McCain, riding high from his victory in the New Hampshire primary, got a hero's welcome Wednesday as he arrived at sunset at South Carolina's elite military college, where he was lavishly introduced by pillars of the GOP establishment.

In an auditorium at the Citadel, silver-haired veterans waving small American flags greeted the former Navy fighter pilot. Fresh-faced cadets in crisp gray uniforms stood at attention onstage as the compliments poured forth from the state's House speaker and attorney general and from U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

"This man has seen it all face to face. He knows the world and the world knows him," said Atty. Gen. Henry McMaster.

Could there be a more unlikely setting than South Carolina for McCain's victory lap?

In his maverick 2000 presidential bid, South Carolina was McCain's Waterloo, where he was crushed by the state establishment's favorite, George W. Bush.

The senator from Arizona now returns to that blood-soaked political battlefield hoping to prove his appeal to the conservative party regulars he needs to keep his resurgent campaign on track for the long haul.

But South Carolina remains littered with political land mines for McCain. There are more evangelical conservatives here than in New Hampshire, and they view him with suspicion. And no one has forgotten the 2000 battle, which featured scathing personal attacks from both sides.

"There's some lingering resentment that sticks in your mouth," said David Woodard, a pollster at Clemson University who supported Bush.

McCain kicked off the new phase of his campaign Wednesday in economically troubled Michigan, a state he won in 2000.

GOP primary rules in Michigan allow independents to vote. That could make it possible for him to outpoll former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- whose father was a popular GOP governor there -- by assembling the same coalition of independents and Republicans that brought him victory in New Hampshire.

But in South Carolina, an all-Republican primary will test McCain's ability to compete with more-conservative candidates like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has been leading in recent polls; Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator who is banking heavily on a strong showing in the state; and Romney, who came in second in New Hampshire.

Republican candidates fanned out across the post-New Hampshire political map Wednesday. But all of the major candidates will converge in Myrtle Beach, S.C., tonight for a debate to be broadcast by Fox News (at 6 p.m. PST).

McCain plans to remain in the state through the weekend. He is inaugurating a very different campaign than the one he conducted here in 2000, underscoring changes in his style, and in the country, in the last eight years.

He is better-organized, reflecting his decision -- criticized in some quarters -- to temper his maverick style with outreach to the establishment.

His signature issue is no longer campaign finance; that has been eclipsed by the war in Iraq and immigration.

South Carolina's 2000 primary was a turning point for McCain, coming on the heels of a surprising victory over Bush in New Hampshire. Bush fought back hard. The state was flooded with negative ads and mailings and phone-jamming calls from both campaigns. The most personal slam -- coming from anonymous sources -- was a rumor that McCain had fathered a black child. He and his wife have an adopted dark-skinned daughter from Bangladesh.

"We were literally stunned the last time by some of that," McCain said early this week, reflecting on the ferocity of the campaign. "To think that people would be making phone calls to say that -- did you know that we have a black baby? -- I mean, that was beyond belief."

This time McCain's campaign has formed a "truth squad" to respond to any attacks on the candidate. Addressing another perceived shortcoming, McCain worked hard to build the institutional support he lacked in 2000, heavily courting the top party leaders and former Bush fundraisers.

His team is led by Graham, McMaster and Bobby Harrell, speaker of the state's House of Representatives, where more than half of the members have endorsed McCain.

That support may not be enough to blunt the opposition he will meet over his controversial proposal that would provide a way for illegal immigrants to become citizens, which critics deride as amnesty for lawbreakers. Sentiment runs so strong that when Graham, a McCain ally on the issue, discussed it at a state GOP convention, he was booed.

McCain lately has distanced himself from the bill. But Tuesday, even before McCain made his victory speech in New Hampshire, the South Carolina group Columbia Christians for Life fired off an e-mail urging conservatives to expose "John McAmnesty McCain's" immigration record before the state's primary.

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