News outlets are projecting that John McCain has won the South Carolina primary—a win that once again makes him the front-runner in a still-crowded Republican field. And he has the civility of that crowded field to thank for his second victory.
In 2000, much was made about the dirty tricks played on McCain, but this time nobody messed with the senior nominee. As Jonathan Martin at Politico notes , his rivals didn't mention him by name and decided to attack one another rather than McCain (who has plenty of policy positions worth attacking, including immigration, tax cuts, and executive experience). By most accounts, the dirty tricks also decreased, with tamer windshield fliers and the normal inflammatory calls that were delivered in all states.
McCain's three-percentage-point win could have been stopped by a few attack ads here and there. At first, it seems strange McCain wasn't knocked around on TV. Mitt Romney already aired attack ads in New Hampshire, but his half-hearted efforts in the state over the past week meant Romney didn't want to spend the resources against McCain in a state he wasn't going to win. Fred Thompson had nothing to lose, but he and McCain are friends, and he didn't have the money to air many ads. And Mike Huckabee gave his infamous no-attack-ad press conference in Iowa, which meant he was out of the running. Huckabee even complimented McCain's civility in his concession speech.
Does this mean we'll see an outbreak of niceness on the campaign trail in Florida? Doubtful. Mitt Romney returns at full strength in the Sunshine State and Rudy Giuliani may surface as a desperate candidate as Jan. 29 draws nigh.
Before his campaign crashed over the summer, McCain was the for-sure front-runner, but he bobbled his chance at the nomination without any attack ads to aid his fall. History is unlikely to repeat itself this time.