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FITSNews – December 30, 2007 – The inauguration of George W. Bush as our nation’s 43rd President never would have happened were it not for a brutal, three-day blitzkrieg of negative campaigning that took place right here in South Carolina eight years ago. Fresh off of a stunning double-digit victory in New Hampshire, Arizona Senator John McCain came to the Palmetto State in 2000 looking to wrestle the GOP nomination from then-Governor Bush, whose previously high-flying campaign had badly foundered.

We all know what happened next – a sleazy character assassination launched by shadowy anonymous mailings and secret push-polls that villified McCain and delivered the state (and the Republican nomination) to Bush.

There’s never been much doubt that the “gutting” of John McCain (more on that specific word choice in a moment) was carefully-orchestrated by Bush’s South Carolina campaign team, led by consultant J. Warren Tompkins, although neither the veteran operative nor any of his underlings have ever owned up to it on the record.

Or … have they?

As with any well-executed, carefully-guarded conspiracy, this one has been protected with a near-fanatical zeal. Accordingly, the only way the truth ever comes to light in situations like this is if one of the co-conspirators accidentally slips up and reveals it – usually in a moment of self-aggrandizing weakness.

Except that hardly ever happens.

It’s not that political animals like Tompkins – or our own Sic Willie, for that matter – aren’t fond of tooting their own horns (quite the opposite is true, in fact), it’s just that they’re exceedingly cognizant of the company they keep when doing so. Especially if reporters are anywhere within earshot.

In fact, over the past eight years only once has a member of the Tompkins’ organization ever gone “on the record” taking credit for the “gutting” of McCain.

Never published, this incriminating quote has languished in political back channels for the past five-and-a-half years, known only to a handful of political operatives and the reporter to whom it was given, Upstate Beat publisher James Shannon.

Until now, that is.

As part of a forthcoming investigative piece on political smearing by NOW, the popular PBS national news magazine, FITSNews has learned that a rare admission of culpability by former Tompkins’ campaign staffer (and current lobbying partner) Jason Puhlasky may finally see the light of day.

Puhlasky’s quote, accurately termed a “direct admission” by Shannon, was given in the context of the 2002 Republican gubernatorial campaign, on which Puhlasky served as political director to then-Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler. Like Bush, Peeler’s intensely-negative South Carolina operation was managed by Tompkins’ firm.

Here is an exclusive excerpt from Shannon’s statement to PBS:

I remember (the quote) quite explicitly. It was at a backyard barbecue at the home of Edwin Foulke, a local attorney (who was) then the chairman of the Greenville County GOP … a number of candidates were there that day, including Peeler and former Congressman Mark Sanford, who had been largely unknown outside his former Charleston-area House district when he filed for governor. After languishing in fourth place during the early primary campaign, Sanford was starting to move up though the consensus was that if Peeler did not escape the primary without a runoff, his likely opponent would be Atty. General Charlie Condon.”

Puhlasky (whom I had never met before that day) spoke confidently of their ability to dispatch Condon in a runoff, and in fact Condon (whose nickname was “Crazy Charlie”) had some exploitable flaws.

“Isn’t it a little risky just focusing on Condon?” I asked. “What if Sanford makes the runoff?”

Puhlasky grinned and said “No problem. We gutted McCain in three days, and we can do it again.”

The reference was to the infamous “push poll” tactic, first seen in a 1978 Congressional election between Democrat Max Heller, the progressive mayor of Greenville, and Republican Carroll Campbell, a state senator looking to move up. Using the cover of a third candidate, Lee Atwater devised a scheme to call voters. Those who expressed a preference for Heller were asked, “Would it change your opinion if you knew he was a foreign-born Jew who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior?” As crude as it sounds, it worked. Heller’s double digit lead disappered the weekend before the election and he lost.

Shannon never used “we gutted McCain in three days” as a quote in that story or any follow-up stories, despite being pressured by the Sanford campaign to do so weeks later when Tompkins’ team began using some of the same smear tactics against their candidate. Sanford ultimately defeated Peeler in the 2002 GOP gubernatorial runoff election by 20 points en route to capturing the Governor’s Mansion.

As it turned out, the Sanford campaign was able to directly link Peeler’s team to an anonymous attack mailing during the runoff, and Puhlasky’s quote was quickly forgotten.

“We uncovered conclusive proof that the Peeler campaign was behind an anonymous smear attack against Sanford and we got a huge press hit out of it,” a former Sanford staffer told FITSNews. “Puhlasky’s quote was no longer relevent.”

At least in that election.

Those six words – “we gutted McCain in three days” – could come back to haunt the presidential aspirations of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, however, who is also using Tompkins’ firm to manage his Palmetto political destiny – and increasingly the fate of his nomination.

Associates of Tompkins have already been busted this year anonymously attacking former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, and with Romney currently fighting for his life against an out-of-nowhere Mike Huckabee campaign in South Carolina (and a resurgent McCain candidacy in New Hampshire), the forecast for more unauthorized monkey business is extremely probable.

It’s one thing that everybody knows Romney’s consultants were behind the “gutting” of McCain eight years ago, but it’s something else entirely to have a direct admission from a participating functionary as part of the public record, albeit belatedly.

The PBS program – which may or may not include references to Puhlasky’s quote – is scheduled to air statewide on South Carolina Educational Television (SCETV) this coming Friday, January 4, at 8:30 p.m.

Stay tuned …