MIAMI - Newt Gingrich complains Mitt Romney has waged the nastiest, most untruthful campaign he can recall after he upset the heretofore GOP presidential front-runner in South Carolina.
He should dial the time machine back to 2000 and talk to John McCain.
George W. Bush, stunned by an 18-point New Hampshire primary loss to McCain, waged a scorched-earth campaign that year against him in, of all places, South Carolina. Now Romney, employing a campaign with striking parallels, is on the cusp of the same kind of agenda-setting win in Florida today that Bush scored 12 years ago.
Bush viewed South Carolina as his political firewall, much as Romney has viewed Florida in his quest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
With such make-or-break stakes, the then-governor of Texas abandoned all sense of decorum and accused McCain of flouting his own campaign finance rules. He also stood idly by while a surrogate speaker suggested the former Vietnam prisoner of war had abandoned fellow veterans.
During the past 10 days, Romney has taken on Gingrich with equal zeal, accusing him of being an “influence-peddler’’ and of lacking the temperament to be president. And the former Massachusetts governor, too, has stood by while surrogates have bird-dogged the former House speaker at his campaign events.
In 2000, the turn of events was enough to prompt the famously maverick McCain to complain: “All of the establishment is against me, and I’m proud of it. If you want business as usual, you don’t want me as president.’’
Gingrich has said virtually the same thing in Florida.
“There’s so many tomahawks in the air that you don’t have time to deal with them all,’’ said John Weaver, who was a top McCain adviser in 2000 and recently ran the campaign of Republican candidate Jon Huntsman.
“I think the mistake we made, and Newt is making, is you start talking about process and what the other guys are doing, and not talking about the positive vision that made people like you in the first place,’’ said Weaver.
Former Bush adviser Stuart Stevens, now plotting Romney’s campaign, did not return a call seeking comment. But another Bush adviser, Mark McKinnon, who is unaligned in the current campaign, said: “They both learned that the only way to win is pedal to the metal around the clock. Any time you let up, inevitably you pay for it.’’
Bush had won the 2000 Iowa caucuses and headed to New Hampshire confident of a back-to-back victories.
While McCain worked voters with his anti-Washington message and courted reporters aboard his “Straight Talk Express,’’ Bush kept an almost indifferent campaign schedule, complete with a sledding excursion.
Then, on Feb. 1, political adviser Karl Rove gave Bush the results of the first New Hampshire primary exit polls: He was headed for a big loss.
Plans for a campaign sea change began.
Bush flew the next day to Greenville, S.C., a conservative bastion and home of Bob Jones University.
There, in front of 5,500 people assembled in a cavernous hall, he quipped that it “feels a lot warmer here.’’ He then proceeded to underscore his new emphasis by focusing on morality and the military - and by using the word “conservative’’ six times in one minute.
A day later, Bush was flanked by an array of veterans as he attacked McCain’s most distinguishing biographical element - his military service - during a rally on the steps of a courthouse in Sumter.
Bush said there is “a big difference between being somebody who had a distinguished military career and someone who’s trying to lead the country.’’
Then he stood mute as Thomas Burch Jr., chairman of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition, said of McCain: “He came home and forgot us.’’
Foreshadowing the current campaign, McCain and Bush went on to exchange allegations over attack ads.
And similar to Romney’s attacks on Gingrich’s work representing Freddie Mac, Bush accused McCain of betraying his campaign finance credentials by raising money from lobbyists.
Both campaigns also accused the other of “push-polling,’’ trying to seed doubts by asking leading questions that are negative in tone. McCain also railed against phone calls accusing his wife of being a drug addict, of him having an illegitimate daughter, and of him fathering a black child - an allusion to the daughter he adopted from Bangladesh.
The confrontation reached a crescendo in a Columbia, S.C., debate before the primary.
Bush, who had carpet-bombed McCain with his own negative ads, took exception to one that McCain had run stating the Texan “twisted the truth just like [Bill] Clinton.’’
McCain protested he had ordered an end to all negative campaigning, prompting Bush to pull out a flier he said had been put on car windshields.
“That is not by my campaign,’’ McCain protested.
Bush shot back, “It says paid for by John McCain.’’
For his part, McCain complained about the criticism from Burch, the veterans leader. “I don’t know if you can understand this, George, but that really hurt. That really hurt,’’ he said.
Bush replied, “The man was not speaking for me. . . . If you want to know my opinion about you, John, you served our country strongly and admirably.’’
Bush avenged his New Hampshire loss with an 11-point win in South Carolina, won the GOP nomination, and the presidency.
It is the same march Romney is hoping to complete - with the endorsement of McCain, who campaigned for him in Florida.
Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.