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South Carolina: McCain's big Southern test

He builds his campaign in the state on lessons from his run in 2000.

By Ariel SabarStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 2008

In attendance: Veteran Jerry Tucker Sr. listened to John McCain at a town-hall event in Spartanburg, S.C.

Andy Nelson – staff

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Spartanburg, S.C.

For a very brief moment this week, the ghosts of the 2000 primary in this Bible Belt state looked as if they were back for Sen. John McCain.

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A flier accused him of leaving POWs behind in Vietnam. Automated phone calls second-guessed his antiabortion record. A man at a campaign stop handed out papers accusing him of joining with "the enemies of South Carolina history & heritage" by supporting the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House dome.

Maybe Senator McCain has changed since the season of smear that scuttled his presidential bid in 2000. Or maybe South Carolina has. But the attacks this time don't seem to be sticking. When the Arizona senator defended himself at a campaign stop Wednesday against a shouting supporter of the Confederate flag, the crowd in this deeply conservative upstate city rose to its feet in applause.

McCain is not putting up with the mudslinging that helped dash his presidential bid eight years ago, when George W. Bush won South Carolina and the nomination. But perhaps more telling, the attacks so far have been relatively few, reflecting not just a smarter campaign but also changed times and a weaker field of opponents.

The stakes couldn't be higher: No Republican since 1980 has won the presidential nomination without first winning South Carolina.

For McCain, this year has offered no shortage of parallels to his last presidential run. As in 2000, he scored a come-from-behind victory in New Hampshire and is riding a wave of momentum in South Carolina, where GOP voters go to the polls Saturday. It is the final act of 2000 – the Palmetto State implosion – that McCain is determined to avoid this time.

"I'll win here in South Carolina, and that's all there is to it," McCain told reporters here Wednesday.

GOP activists and political experts here aren't quite as confident. But they say that McCain is on far surer footing than he was eight years ago. "He has definitely turned a corner," says C. Danielle Vinson, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville.

Recent polls show him pulling ahead of Mike Huckabee, the Southern Baptist pastor and former Arkansas governor who had held a commanding lead here since early December.

Two of the state's largest newspapers, The State and The Greenville News, praised McCain's leadership and national security credentials in endorsing him last weekend. Eight years ago, both papers backed Mr. Bush.

McCain has built his South Carolina campaign on the painful lessons of 2000. He forged early ties with evangelical Christian leaders he had snubbed eight years ago. He fought for the state's antigay marriage amendment in 2006, and his campaign assembled a faith advisory panel. He formed a "Truth Squad" to parry the kind of false rumors that dogged him the last time, including allegations in 2000 that an orphan whom he and his wife adopted in Bangladesh was his out-of-wedlock child.

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