While doing some research, I came across an editorial in the St. Petersburg Times from early 2000. It’s a Lexis Nexis search and I’m sure no longer available except by fee from the paper. Here’s the relevant part.
At one of his first South Carolina appearances, Bush shared the stage with a discredited former Green Beret who accused McCain of “stabbing veterans in the back.” The Bush campaign has relied on surrogates for much of its dirty work. The tobacco lobby has run ads accusing McCain of supporting huge tax increases – failing to mention that the proposed increases were on cigarette taxes. The National Right to Life Committee has run ads distorting McCain’s views on abortion, and Americans for Tax Reform have run ads distorting McCain’s record on fiscal policy.
Most despicable of all have been the personal attacks on McCain. A mass e-mail from a Bob Jones professor claimed McCain “chose to sire children without benefit of marriage” and “chose to focus his life on partying, playing, drinking and womanizing.” So-called “push polls,” in the guise of legitimate political polling, have spread more dirt on McCain to thousands of homes. Fringe religious groups even have spread the libel that McCain’s captors while he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam brainwashed him and turned him into a Communist agent.
The Bush campaign, the most expensive in the history of U.S. politics, has spent millions on negative advertising in South Carolina, but many of the nastiest and most dishonest attacks on McCain have come from outside groups. Bush can’t control everything independent groups do on his behalf, but Time’s Jay Carney and other campaign reporters have detailed evidence of the Bush campaign’s coordination with some of those groups. “Right to Life will do radio, (Americans for Tax Reform) will do TV ads,” Carney quoted a Bush adviser after the New Hampshire primary. “ATR will come (to South Carolina) with whatever we need.”
Leave aside Bush’s handlers’ efforts to repackage their candidate – the son of a former president and the darling of Washington insiders – as “a reformer with results.” That’s within the bounds of typical campaign puffery. Even the Bush ads that paint the solidly conservative McCain as a liberal tool of the Democratic Party are predictable stuff; however, the organized character assassination of a war hero has been breathtaking. McCain hasn’t been entirely innocent or defenseless. Bush took great umbrage when McCain ads accused him of “twisting the truth like Clinton.” But McCain doesn’t have the money or organization to match the Bush campaign’s gutter tactics even if he wanted to.
Dirty campaigns often work in South Carolina, but voters in 49 other states are watching, too. The Bush campaign “went from compassionate conservatism to downright mean,” said U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a McCain supporter and former House impeachment manager. “The persona of George Bush nationally has changed in South Carolina. It’s a campaign that lost its way after New Hampshire.”