SPARTANBURG, S.C. — John McCain's Republican presidential run collapsed in South Carolina eight years ago after what his campaign later acknowledged was a critical mistake: hesitating before responding to false accusations that the candidate's wife was a drug addict and that he fathered an illegitimate child.
With South Carolina again emerging as a pivotal battleground in McCain's campaign for the presidency, his campaign is moving aggressively -- too aggressively, critics say -- to make sure the Arizona senator doesn't fall victim to personal smears again.
The centerpiece of its strategy is a group that calls itself the "truth squad." It was established this month to preempt or blunt any new political dirty tricks, such as a recent mailing sent to several dozen South Carolina newspapers accusing McCain of betraying fellow prisoners during the Vietnam War.
McCain's truth squad is headed by South Carolina Atty. Gen. Henry McMaster, state Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell and state Adjutant General Stan Spears. Even as the McCain campaign was preparing a mailer last week critical of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's record on abortion and taxes, McCain promised that his group would swing back hard if it saw anything reminiscent of the 2000 attacks against him.
The squad's role was evident Wednesday when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a state co-chairman for the McCain campaign, appeared at a McCain rally in Greenville, S.C., and told the crowd to watch for "some garbage in the mail out there and the phone." He asked the veterans in the audience to "watch John's back."
At the next event, in Spartanburg, McMaster, another campaign co-chairman, said the political season was beginning to look like "Halloween with a full moon" where "people will do most anything."
"Don't pay attention to that stuff," he said.
McCain told reporters on his campaign bus that "scurrilous stuff" had started again, referring to the mailing about his prisoner-of-war experience, among other things. "We will not let it go this time," he said.
The effort riled, among others, the campaign of McCain rival Romney.
"It was very quiet until McCain's people revved it up," said J. Warren Tompkins, a South Carolina consultant to the Romney campaign.
"To me," Tompkins said, "they're boxing ghosts, because nobody is really doing anything."
An advisor to the Romney campaign also accused the McCain camp of hypocrisy, citing a McCain mailing in South Carolina that the advisor said distorted Romney's record.
The McCain campaign also was taken to task by FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan website run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Alluding to McCain's campaign bus, it said, "McCain's 'Straight Talk Express' took a wrong turn with this mailer."
McCain advisors say they are trying to protect their candidate from a repeat of the tactics that badly hurt his bid in 2000.
Charles Black, a McCain advisor, said eight years ago the senator's campaign did not realize how widespread the attacks were until it was too late. McCain, he said, "didn't want to get down into the gutter with these guys. . . . He didn't want to personally respond."
"By the time he did, all kinds of terrible smear things had gotten off," Black said.
This time, he said, "People know what happened in 2000 and they've heard these leaders in the state warn them of this."
Black cited the automated phone calls to South Carolina residents Tuesday and Wednesday that masqueraded as a polling effort but were an apparent ploy to push Republican voters to vote for another major Republican candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The McCain campaign condemned the calls as "a massive push-polling effort disparaging rivals" of Huckabee.
It attributed the calls to Common Sense Issues, a nonprofit political organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Patrick Davis, executive director of the group, told the Associated Press that Common Sense began its calls Tuesday and would complete them today. The group has pledged to make 1 million phone calls in South Carolina supporting Huckabee.
Huckabee, who has distanced himself from the group, said in a prepared statement that his campaign "has nothing to do with push-polling and I wish they would stop. We don't want this kind of campaigning because it violates the spirit of our campaign."
The McCain camp also responded forcefully to a flier from Vietnam Veterans Against McCain. The flier showed a caricature of McCain with swollen jowls crouched in a prison cell, and included scrawled messages including "AN ENORMOUS CRIME" and "SONGBIRD."
The text accused McCain of breaking down while in captivity as a prisoner of war and giving up information about U.S. military operations.
Reached at his home in Garnerville, N.Y., Gerard Kiley, the founder and sole member of Vietnam Veterans Against McCain, said McCain "allows the media to call him a hero when he's not."