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On the Trail / TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES?

McCain's anti-rumor strategy

January 18, 2008

False accusations that circulated in South Carolina against John McCain -- claiming that his wife was a drug addict and that he fathered an illegitimate child -- helped destroy the Arizona senator's bid for the Republican nomination in 2000. This time, he has established a "truth squad" of supporters in the state to parry attacks. What do you think of the McCain campaign creating a truth squad?

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Defensive action: In 2000, "certainly he was subject to some attacks. It makes sense to take defensive action. If there's anybody in America who knows about the consequences of getting shot down, it's John McCain. . . .

"With a limited amount of time left in the campaign, you can't take your time batting down a bad story. You have to react very quickly, or the story could do you a lot of damage. . . .

"Truth squads are an old practice in American politics."

-- John J. Pitney Jr.,

professor of government at Claremont McKenna College

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Personal politics: "On the one hand [setting up a truth squad] reminds voters of how he was unfairly maligned in the past, so it can elicit some sympathy. On the other hand, it's very proactive and it sort of makes sure the media is primed and ready to jump in on any of these ads. . . .

"In any other part of the country this would seem like an overreaction, but to me it seemed natural here. Politics has always been personal and bare-knuckled in South Carolina."

-- Scott H. Huffmon,

a professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

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Blindsided: "We were completely blindsided by this eight years ago. We weren't prepared, we didn't expect it, and by the time we knew it was happening, it was too late to do anything about it. So what they're doing this year is exactly the right type of precautionary approach to take. . . .

"You've heard the old line, a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth puts its shoes on. This time they've got their shoes on. . . .

"In this type of situation, reacting to an attack isn't good enough. You have to anticipate it so that when the attack comes, the voters have been prepared to discount it."

-- Dan Schnur,

a Republican strategist who was the McCain campaign's communications director in 2000

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