The Dirty War Moves South

Sunday may be a day of rest, but not for the political dirty tricksters. When Mike Huckabee emerged from the Cornerstone Family Church in Des Moines on the Sunday before the Iowa caucuses, he found that someone had papered the cars in the suburban megachurch's parking lot with fliers asking, MIKE HUCKABEE—A 'TRUE' CONSERVATIVE? The leaflet accused the former Arkansas governor of, among other sins, releasing a convicted rapist who raped again (and murdered) and saying nice things about Bill Clinton. "Don't be fooled by that smooth voice," warned the flier. Credited to an anonymous group called the Lynchburg Christian Students for the Truth, the circular had been spotted first at Huckabee rallies in South Carolina in the fall. This time the flier listed an e-mail address: When NEWSWEEK e-mailed it to find out more information on the group, no one responded.

The flier was a fairly typical—and relatively benign—example of the trash flying around Campaign 2008. Huckabee has not been a particular victim; his foes have been slimed with much worse, sometimes from "independent" groups backing Huckabee. Evangelical Christians, or at least their fringe groups, seem to be especially practiced at anonymous smears (possibly for the same reason that the worst wars are often religious ones: sins are easier to forgive if you know that God is on your side). Dark arts are hardly new to politics, and dirty tricksters have always been inventive. In 1964, operatives working for the re-election of President Lyndon Johnson circulated a coloring book in which children could color pictures of LBJ's opponent, Barry Goldwater, wearing the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. But 2008 promises to be a banner year for gutter politics. "I think this will be the nastiest campaign we've seen in a long time," says Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University.

Technology serves as a force multiplier for crude partisan passion. Like many political junkies, West has been tracking the vicious e-mail traffic already swirling around the Internet, e-mails saying that Sen. Barack Obama is a Muslim who took his oath of office on a Qur'an or insinuating that former governor Mitt Romney's Mormonism is some kind of Devil worship. "Technology makes dirty tricks much easier," says West. "You can do it without leaving fingerprints." The candidates themselves can stay positive while relying on anonymous supporters to do the dirty work, he notes. Most voters see through the smears, but even swaying 5 percent of them can have an impact in a close election. A NEWSWEEK investigation suggests that political hit jobs are already rampant and likely to get worse. Some are done the old-fashioned way—anonymous fliers left on windshields or shoved under doors—and some, increasingly, by hard-to-track e-mails and automated phone calls.

The Bible-belt state of South Carolina, which votes Jan. 19 (Republicans) and Jan. 26 (Democrats), has a sorry record of smears. Cars outside churches on the Sunday before the GOP primary in 2000 were papered with fliers, sourced to an obscure Baptist group in Kentucky, questioning Sen. John McCain's sexuality and warning that a vote for McCain would be a vote for "McCain's Fag Army." The mud deepened: a flier distributed at McCain's final debate said that he'd fathered a "Negro child" out of wedlock; it used a photo of Bridget McCain, an orphan adopted years earlier by the senator's wife, Cindy, while she was on a relief mission in Bangladesh.

McCain tries to shrug off his smearing in 2000. He told NEWSWEEK: "It's behind me, and I don't think about it. People don't like sore losers." But just in case, his campaign has created a "truth squad" in South Carolina to mount a "rapid response" to any underhanded attacks and has manned a 24/7 war room of college students with laptops, on watch for Internet dirt on their candidate. The McCain campaign breathed a slight sigh of relief when Romney pulled his advertising from South Carolina to devote more resources to his effort in Michigan. Romney had hired Warren Tompkins as a South Carolina consultant. Known admiringly in the political trade as "the god of hell," Tompkins is legendary in the state as a disciple of the late Lee Atwater, an old Bush-family operative and perhaps the most renowned modern practitioner of campaign dark arts. The old Atwater attack machine may have been switched off, or at least turned down. Still, Tompkins, who has always denied authorship of the nastiest attacks on McCain in 2000, tells NEWSWEEK that he doubts the state's primary will suddenly become a model of civility. Many of South Carolina's evangelical leaders—who, Tompkins says, "self-generated" most of the 2000 attacks—have lined up with Huckabee and remain implacably opposed to McCain.

A favorite tactic of negative campaigning is the telephone "push poll"—a phone call in which pretend pollsters ask leading, sometimes false, questions to push voters for or against candidates. In the days before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, voters would pick up their ringing phones and hear an automated voice ask them which of several GOP candidates they supported. If, for instance, they answered "Rudy Giuliani," they'd hear a message reminding them that Giuliani is a supporter of abortion rights. If a voter indicated Mitt Romney, a series of questions would follow, asking if the voter wanted to back a former governor who had flip-flopped on core GOP issues like immigration. If the voter picked McCain, the robo-call machine would point out that McCain had sponsored legislation limiting campaign activities of anti-abortion activists. Sometimes the calls would end with a pitch for Mike Huckabee as the candidate who would cut taxes and close the borders.

NEWSWEEK traced some of the calls to an organization called Common Sense Issues, a tax-exempt group set up by religious conservatives who support Huckabee but insist they have no connection to his campaign. The group's president, a former Procter & Gamble executive named Harold (Zeke) Swift, says, "Helping a voter see what the issues are is not negative." Patrick Davis, the executive director of Common Sense and a former senior official of the national Republican Party, tells NEWSWEEK that the robo-calls, which he refers to as "personalized educational artificial intelligence," are "factual." Common Sense is making them by the hundreds of thousands before the Michigan primary, Davis has publicly acknowledged. "Other near term primary states are on our radar screen," he e-mailed NEWSWEEK. (Huckabee has publicly called on Common Sense to stop its efforts on his behalf.)

As long as there is insufficient evidence of collusion between the campaigns and these independent-expenditure groups, such calls are legal under federal election laws. There is, however, considerable overlap between the campaigns and the supposedly independent nonprofits—especially when it comes to financing. Three of Common Sense's principals—Swift, Davis and another Procter & Gamble executive named Nathan Estruth—cohosted a Cincinnati fund-raiser for Huckabee in November. Last week NEWSWEEK interviewed Arch Bonnema, a financial backer of both Huckabee and Common Sense, as well as various religious causes (he once personally paid for 42,000 tickets to showings of Mel Gibson's controversial Crucifixion film, "The Passion of the Christ," in Dallas-area cinemas and helped finance an expedition to find the remains of Noah's Ark in Iran). Bonnema was aware that Common Sense was financing calls to make voters "aware of issues," but says he was unaware of any controversy over the practice.

In New Hampshire, under state law, anonymous push polling is illegal before a general election. In November someone launched calls that appeared to spread slurs about Romney's Mormonism. Though the calls were made before the primary, the New Hampshire A.G.'s office has deemed them to be intended to influence the general election and launched a criminal investigation. James Kennedy, the state's top election law-enforcement official, says the calls were initially traced to Western WATS, a well-known marketing and political-research firm in Orem, Utah. Western WATS, in turn, said it was commissioned to make the calls by Moore Information, a Republican polling firm based in Portland, Ore. Reached by NEWSWEEK, Bob Moore, a former operative of the national GOP, declined to identify his client but says, "There's no way it's a push poll. It's opinion research." The calls were intended for "message testing"—not to spread slurs against other candidates.

The Internet has created an almost limitless battlefield for below-the-radar attacks. One new vehicle is the anonymous attack blog, often created by high-powered political consultants to advance the interests of their clients. Not surprisingly, Atwater's protégé Warren Tompkins has helped pioneer the phenomenon. Last year, just about the time that Tompkins signed on as Romney's top South Carolina strategist, a new blog of state politics, The Shot, popped up. Much of it was filled with standard political gossip and news, but some readers detected a pattern of barbs aimed at McCain, Fred Thompson and every other GOP candidate—except Romney. The Shot turned out to be the creation of an employee of Tompkins's consulting firm. The same employee created a "Phony Fred" Web site that ridiculed Thompson as "Playboy Fred" ("Once a Pro-Choice Skirt Chaser, Now Standard-Bearer of the Religious Right?"). Tompkins acknowledged to NEWSWEEK that the employee had created the Fred Thompson site out of the consulting firm's office, but added: "I didn't sanction it. As soon as I found out about it, I had it taken down." Romney's campaign has denied any role in these smear tactics. The candidate himself has been the target of a nasty trick sent through snail mail: a phony Christmas card, purporting to be from the Romney family, quoting passages from the Book of Mormon that made Romney seem like a white supremacist.

Democrats have their own share of anonymous mudslingers. An e-mail making the rounds claims, falsely, that Obama was enrolled in a radical Wahhabi school when he lived in Indonesia as a boy, and that he not only used the Qur'an when he was sworn in as a public official, but refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. "While others place their hands over their hearts, Obama turns his back to the flag and slouches," sneers the e-mail.

Obama backers have frequently taken to the Web to knock down these falsehoods; all the campaigns maintain some kind of Web surveillance. The Internet is "a self-correcting medium," says Peter Daou, the Internet director for Hillary Clinton's campaign. Still, the campaign has to constantly monitor the Web and maintain a "rapid response" unit that links Web viewers to a site called the Fact Hub to set the record straight. Younger voters get much of their information online, and campaigns are constantly trying to reach those voters through networking tools. Last spring, apparently trying to show their candidate's hipness, McCain's staff created a MySpace social-networking page that "borrowed" a sophisticated template designed by Mike Davidson, the CEO of Newsvine, a social news site—without giving him credit. Irked, Davidson couldn't resist pulling "a nice little prank," he says. He altered the McCain site by writing, "Dear Supporters, Today I announce that I have reversed my position and come out in full support of gay marriage … particularly marriage between passionate females." Davidson insists that McCain's staff had a good laugh about the whole thing. But he acknowledges, "I think if it happened now, they would be less good-humored about it." Davidson says the experience reminded him that "technology can hurt you as easily as it can help you." It's doubtful that McCain needed any reminding about what a fast-spreading smear can do in a hotly contested presidential race.