COLUMBIA, S.C — . -- The Confederate flag, abortion and same-sex marriage jumped to the forefront of the Republican presidential race as the candidates scrambled for support in today's South Carolina primary.
Whoever takes the campaign's first Southern contest will have much-needed momentum going into Florida's Jan. 29 primary and the coast-to-coast battle Feb. 5. Voters crowned different winners in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan this month.
With so much at stake, South Carolina this week lived up to its reputation for dirty tactics. John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson griped about political mischief as they crossed paths between rain-soaked Charleston on the coast and snowbound Greenville near the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"Ladies and gentlemen, South Carolina's going to reject this garbage," McCain told supporters Friday at a rally near the state Capitol -- even though the Arizona senator had sent out his own mailings that slammed rival Mitt Romney on taxes and abortion.
Romney all but abandoned South Carolina after a year of intense effort. The former Massachusetts governor opted to campaign Friday in Nevada, which holds its caucuses today. In his wake, Romney's ads on South Carolina TV stations alternated with news footage of his parting snit with a reporter in Columbia about lobbyists' influence in his campaign.
For McCain and Huckabee, the South Carolina front-runners, today's primary presents a chance to avoid the "one-state wonder" label. (McCain won the New Hampshire primary; Huckabee carried the Iowa caucuses.)
For Thompson, a former Tennessee senator, South Carolina will make -- or more likely break -- his campaign. "It's good to be back in home territory, where they know how to cook green beans, and they're not crunchy," he told supporters at a West Columbia diner Thursday.
Snow in the west and rain in the east threaten to depress turnout, especially in the more conservative inland areas where Huckabee has run strong among evangelicals.
On talk radio and TV news this week, the Republicans each vowed to revive South Carolina's ailing economy, mainly through tax cuts. The state has lost 94,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000.
McCain played up his hawkish foreign-policy record. The former Navy fighter pilot held a sunset rally Friday aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown in Charleston Harbor. He said the United States had come "a long, long way" in reducing violence in Iraq.
Like Huckabee, Thompson and Romney, McCain stressed his anti-abortion stand.
But Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister, has been most aggressive in appealing to social conservatives, at times stirring controversy along the way. In remarks to beliefnet.com, a religious website, he angered gay-rights groups by comparing same-sex marriage to bestiality: "I think the radical view is to say that we're going to change the definition of marriage so that it can mean two men, two women, a man and three women, a man and a child, a man and animal."
Facing questions on displays of the Confederate flag, Huckabee called it a matter of states' rights. "You don't like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag," the former Arkansas governor said in Myrtle Beach. "In fact, if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell them what to do with the pole."
McCain -- who lost the primary here in 2000 and has expressed regret for not speaking out forcefully against the flag back then -- faced protesters waving the banner at several campaign stops. At a forum in Spartanburg, one asked McCain to explain why he called for removing the flag from the statehouse dome. "My answer, sir, is that I cannot be more proud of the overwhelming majority of people who joined together in taking that flag off the top of the Capitol," he said, setting off a wave of applause.
As for Thompson, he hammered Huckabee for phone calls that he said had spread negative information about him to voters. "I won't call any names, but Gov. Huckabee says he doesn't know anything about it," Thompson told the crowd in West Columbia, saying one of the calls falsely accused him of backing a controversial abortion procedure.
On Friday, Thompson's website featured video snippets of South Carolina voters venting at Huckabee. "Gov. Huckabee, stop lying about Fred Thompson's conservative record and end these calls," a man identified as Jerry Powell of North Augusta said in one grainy home video.
Huckabee said Thursday that he had denounced the calls "as vociferously as a man can." But he said he was barred by law from speaking directly to supporters who paid for the calls because their effort was independent from his campaign. He described the law, co-sponsored by McCain, as "a nightmare for everybody."
Times staff writer Maeve Reston in Charleston contributed to this report.