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McCain won over the Lowcountry

6 mins read

By Bill Rauch

The Lowcountry lost a good man and a good friend last week.

Six-term Arizona Senator John McCain won the Lowcountry handily in the 1999 Republican Presidential Primary against George W. Bush, and he won our votes again in 2007 when he beat Mitt Romney and then Barack Obama here.

In June 1999, I had just been elected mayor of Beaufort when candidate McCain came calling. I didn’t know much about him, but one-on-one that day now 19+ years ago his manner was so forthright and purposeful, and his message was so right — that he would loosen the grip “special interests” had on Washington — that right there on the spot I decided to give him my support. He was virtually unknown and at 3 percent in the statewide polls that were being taken at the time.

I never regretted it.

One thing he said then that I recounted in my 2004 book, “Politicking,” was, “Mayor, I’m going to run a campaign that will make you and your children proud,” and he did.

It wasn’t easy.

You can read the book for all the grizzly details, but let me just pick out one.

Senator McCain’s wife, Cindy, a delightful lady, was then and still is a supporter of Operation Smile, the non-profit cleft palate reconstruction group. On a trip to a Bangladeshi orphanage run by Mother Teresa in about 1990, Cindy McCain was told about a young girl there whose life could only be saved by leaving Bangladesh and being placed for several months in a first-class western hospital and attended to by the best medical professionals. Then would begin a long series of follow-up treatments. The costs of all that would be significant, but in the end the little girl’s recovery would be complete.

Cindy and John McCain decided they would adopt the girl, Bridget, and see to it that the necessary medical care was provided, and they did. They saved the little girl’s life and lovingly raised her as one of their own.

Six months after our initial meeting, in November 1999, John McCain returned to South Carolina fresh off a surprise 18-point win over George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary. All of a sudden the senator’s candidacy was very real.

In an effort to turn things back around, Bush’s South Carolina campaign operatives took Bridget’s story and turned it into a methodically and professionally spread rumor that was circulated primarily in the Upstate by Christian radio personalities. Their twisted tale, custom-made for South Carolina’s Upstate buckle of the Bible Belt voters was that McCain was the father of an illegitimate African-American daughter, Bridget.

I was in campaign meetings where the candidate was told about how exactly this was being done, and other dirty tricks that were being played upon his 1999 effort at the time. I heard also McCain’s South Carolina operatives advise him that the only way to fight fire is with fire … that it was time to get loose with the truth going negative on the then still little-known Texas governor.

And I heard with my own ears the candidate say more than once, “If we have to lie to win, I would rather not win.”

Notwithstanding McCain’s unfortunate flip-flop on the Confederate Flag, neither the candidate nor his campaign did make up ugly stuff about Bush, and he didn’t win. Yes, he won here, but he lost by a 53-42 margin statewide and two weeks later he was out of the race.

My impression from conversations during the 2007 effort and in later meetings is that John was good with that. I never heard him look back with anger or spite, and at least with respect to the legendarily ugly and deeply personal 1999 South Carolina Republican Presidential primary that threw his candidacy off the tracks, I would be one of those who might well have been in earshot.

The closest he came was regretting he didn’t stand taller on the flag.

McCain-Feingold was the rest of the Senator’s reply. That legislation that bears his name, passed in 2002 after he was back on the job on Capitol Hill, limits soft money in campaigns, and there was never any suggestion that McCain’s motives in advancing it were vindictive. 

Indeed, one of the senator’s last requests was that the two guys who beat him for the top job — George W. Bush and Barack Obama — be two who would be asked to speak at his funeral.

We lost a good man and a good friend last week. 

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.

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