Tobacco, Taxes Sunk McCain in 2000 S.C. Primary, Not Dirty Tricks

One of the American mainstream media's favorite John McCain memes is that South Carolina voters rejected the Arizona Republican in 2000 because of a baseless smear campaign about McCain's personal life. That bias is so infectious it's now a global pandemic, just witness this item from the January 18 edition of the London-based Financial Times:

McCain hopes to avoid repeat of 2000For John McCain, victory in tomorrow's Republican primary in South Carolina would exorcise the ghosts of the bitterest moment in his political career.It was in South Carolina in 2000 that his first presidential campaign crumbled after a vicious smear campaign by supporters of his opponent, George W. Bush.A barrage of misinformation was spread through phone calls and leaflets, including claims the Arizona senator had fathered an illegitimate black child and that his wife was a drug addict.The smears reinforced doubts about Mr McCain among social conservatives and helped deliver Mr Bush a victory that set him on course for the Republican nomination.

The problem, of course is that the smear tactics were not only never proven to be linked to the Bush campaign, they are taken on face value as THE driving factor rather than conservative distaste for the more liberal stances of John McCain when set in contrast to then-Gov. Bush.For example, McCain ran, to be charitable, gun-shy on income tax cuts compared to then-Gov. Bush's tax cut plans. What's more, McCain actually pushed some tax hikes and demagogic rhetoric about a major industry in South Carolina centered on the state's most profitable cash crop, tobacco.Take this Nexis transcript excerpt from Linda Douglass's report on the Feb. 3, 2000 edition of ABC's "World News Tonight" (emphasis mine):

DOUGLASS: (VO) But for the most part, McCain avoided talking about Bush today. Instead, he got into another fight with tobacco companies. McCain wants to raise tobacco taxes. Today, a group which has had ties to cigarette companies began running an ad attacking him. He jumped at the chance to respond.Sen. McCAIN: I'm honored by the attacks by people who have addicted our children and lied to Congress.DOUGLASS: (VO) McCain even said he despises the tobacco companies. It was the kind of blunt talk his campaign thrives on--taking on the tobacco industry in a state where it is the number-one crop. It might be a shrewd move. Farmers here are angry at cigarette companies for buying more tobacco abroad. McCain's aides say it is working. More than $ 700,000 has poured into his Web site in two days.

The day before, ABC's Dean Reynolds aired a soundbite from Bush laying his soft-but-firm critique of McCain:

Gov. BUSH: I wouldn't call John a liberal. I would say that on key points he's taken the Democratic position.

McCain's war on tobacco and squishiness on tax cuts played a heavy if not central role in Bush's Palmetto primary victory, it just doesn't fit a liberal meme that boosts the "campaign finance reform"-boosting senator while tarring southern conservatives as racist bubbas.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters