CHARLESTON, S.C.--All the factors that worked in John McCain's favor in New Hampshire militated against him in South Carolina. Up North, the religious right is a negligible factor. Down South, it retains both a real hold on the Republican Party and a powerful aversion to John McCain. In Yankee territory, campaign-finance reform is a compelling cause. In the birthplace of the Confederacy, conservatives either don't care about it or see it as a plot to help Democrats. Even the wave of favorable press coverage that buoyed McCain there made him an object of suspicion here.
These were political realities beyond McCain's control. I don't think there was much he could do to neutralize them. But McCain also made one highly significant mistake all his own, which was to run two harsh negative TV ads in which he compared George W. Bush's trustworthiness to Bill Clinton's. In terms of the air war, this was disproportionate retaliation for what were, at that stage, much milder Bush ads. It also registered as a frontal violation of Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Speak No Ill of a Fellow Republican.
It's evident why McCain ran these excessivly mean spots about his opponent. On arrival in South Carolina, he was hit with a barrage of truly vicious stuff off the airwaves, from charges that he had betrayed veterans after returning from Vietnam to accusations that he had fathered children out of wedlock. His media consultants Mike Murphy and Greg Stevens are no patsies. They thought they would lay down a marker, warning Bush and his surrogates to cease and desist or else. In responding so harshly, McCain's campaign was also responding to the historical example of Bill Bradley. The conventional wisdom two weeks ago was that the worst mistake any candidate could make was not responding to negative ads from his more ruthless, establishment opponent.
But McCain's ads played right into his opponent's hands by giving Bush cover for his own, better-funded, better-organized, and ultimately more negative negativity. McCain soon realized his mistake and not only withdrew the Clinton-comparison commercials but also unilaterally disarmed, promising to not run any more negative ads. This was a bold move, but it came too late for McCain to retake the high horse, as Bush put it a couple of days ago. Bush kept hammering away at how unfair and untrue McCain's ads had been more than a week after they were withdrawn. Meanwhile he was throwing plenty of mud himself. To mention only one example, the airwaves have been filled with radio commercials featuring former South Carolina Gov. (and Lee Atwater protégé) Carroll Campbell, in which Campbell alleges that Democrats are supporting McCain to avenge themselves on Bush for defeating their "liberal hero" Ann Richards.
The result of McCain's attack/retreat was the worst of both worlds for his campaign. He got the blame for being negative without any of the benefits. In polls taken before the election, more voters said that McCain's ads were unfair than said Bush's were. In retrospect, McCain would have been better off with any consistent strategy: either not running any negative ads about Bush at all or continuing to run them through Election Day. Moreover, he has left himself hamstrung as he heads to Michigan. He'd like to highlight Bush's ugly campaign in South Carolina. But he can't do so without violating his pledge to remain positive.