COLUMBIA — As the 2000 New Hampshire GOP presidential primary results rolled in with Sen. John McCain headed to an upset landslide victory, his chief political strategist John Weaver came to deliver the good news.
Weaver assumed his boss would be elated. But McCain was already looking over the horizon to what awaited him in the next contest down in South Carolina where George W. Bush would have his back against the wall and his campaign team would be desperate to stay alive.
The state had become the breeding ground for the late GOP mastermind Lee Atwater’s no-holds-barred approach to campaigning. McCain knew the gloves were bound to come off — and they did in a historic way.
“Well, Johnny,” McCain replied, according to Weaver’s retelling, “a fine mess you’ve gotten me into now.”
South Carolina has been the setting for some of the highest highs and lowest lows of McCain’s political career.
It’s the home state of his closest friend, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and contains many other longtime allies. With a heavy military and veteran presence, the state plays to McCain’s political strengths.
Now the 80-year-old Arizona Republican, who famously endured more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, faces his latest test. After McCain was diagnosed last month with an aggressive form of brain tumor known as glioblastoma, South Carolina politicos find themselves reflecting on his mark in South Carolina.
McCain’s relationship with the Palmetto State got off to an inauspicious start.
“It was trench warfare,” said Chip Felkel, a Greenville-based GOP consultant who worked with Bush’s 2000 campaign.
With 18 days between the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, “there was a convergence of resources, political talent — or lack thereof depending on one’s perspective — and stakes,” recalled South Carolina’s then-Attorney General Charlie Condon, who supported Bush in 2000 before becoming one of the state co-chairs of McCain’s 2008 campaign.
A smear campaign led to rumors that McCain’s adopted daughter, Bridget, was actually the product of an illegitimate, interracial fling and that McCain’s wife, Cindy, was a drug addict. Whispers could be heard on the campaign trail questioning McCain’s mental state and patriotism.
Meanwhile, a short-lived attack ad from McCain’s campaign claimed Bush “twists the truth like (Democratic President Bill) Clinton” — a charge that, to South Carolina Republicans, was about as low as it could possibly go. The campaign pulled the spot, and Weaver said McCain directed his team to fight with integrity.
But because of that ad, Bush’s team “felt free to unload,” Condon said.
“We all realized that we were at a pivot point when it was going to become a pretty brutal race,” Weaver said. “Up until the moment we’re in with Trump now, I would say that that time period in South Carolina was probably the most tumultuous campaign in modern political history.”
McCain also stepped into the thorniest of political issues in the state, one day declaring the Confederate flag “a symbol of racism and slavery,” before backtracking soon after to call it “a symbol of heritage.”
After the campaign, he returned to South Carolina to apologize for not standing by his initial characterization, admitting he had compromised his principles.
“I don’t think that has ever been done before by anybody in this business — going back to a state to apologize — and it says something about his character that he did,” Weaver said.
Who exactly coordinated the “dirty tricks” will remain forever in dispute. But they worked. Bush won handily in South Carolina, a devastating blow to McCain’s campaign.
After 9/11, however, McCain gradually became one of the foremost supporters of Bush’s foreign policy.
“He forgave the Bush forces long before we ever did,” Weaver said, “and that’s just the way he is.”
Seven years later, McCain made his way back to South Carolina for round two, dead-set on conquering the demons of his past attempt.
“That was vintage John McCain,” said Condon, recalling a far more “uplifting” campaign than the scrappy 2000 tussle.
The renewed effort still got off to a near-calamitous start. The campaign blew through cash at an untenable rate, prompting McCain to drop Weaver and other top advisors in July 2007 — a turning point McCain staffers refer to as “the implosion.”
Shortly after, McCain flew into the Greenville-Spartanburg airport as the campaign became laser-focused on the three biggest early primaries of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Having flown a private jet everywhere in the early months of the race, the newly frugal candidate was sticking to commercial flights.
Buzz Jacobs, the South Carolina state director for McCain’s 2008 bid, met him at the gate and offered to take his bags, but McCain brushed him off. Unable to afford even a rental car, Jacobs and McCain drove around in the SUV of fellow staffer B.J. Boling.
“I’m just thinking, here’s this great war hero, this great senator, this presidential candidate, carrying his own bags,” Jacobs said. “People are saying his political career is over, he can’t win.”
The surge in Iraq, for which Graham and McCain were two of the biggest congressional boosters, helped the senator's campaign turn the page.
“In Iowa, we had like 10 people at an American Legion event, and half of them were there because it was bingo night,” Graham said. “We wind up in Charleston at The Citadel later in the fall and it was packed. The idea of not giving up in Iraq caught on.”
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee chipped away at McCain’s lead, pulling away much of the evangelical vote in the Upstate. On primary night, the anxious McCain family and campaign team watched the returns on TV together in Charleston, with the senator’s candidacy yet again on the ropes.
“He’s not a guy that really gets stressed because he’s been in a lot worse situations than elections,” Jacobs said. “But once they put that checkmark next to his name, you could just feel the weight lift off his shoulders and Cindy’s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sen. McCain smile so much as that night.”
McCain went on to claim the GOP presidential nomination but lose the race to Democrat Barack Obama by a 365 to 173 Electoral College margin. In South Carolina, he topped Obama by nine percent.
Few people in the world, let alone the Senate or the state of South Carolina, are closer to McCain than Graham.
“I am inspired by him,” Graham said on NBC’s Today Show after McCain’s diagnosis. “He has taught me what it means to be an American patriot. He is a good example of what it means to be a senator. And above all that, he’s a friend — not a Washington friend — a friend.”
Even some South Carolina Democrats, despite their differences with McCain on policy, developed a profound respect for him. When McCain took over the Senate Commerce Committee in 1997, he called up now-retired Sen. Fritz Hollings — the renowned Charleston Democrat and one of McCain’s predecessors as chairman — to talk about the committee.
Hollings told McCain he would come to visit his office. But McCain insisted that he come to Hollings, according to Hollings’ former chief of staff David Rudd, a simple yet symbolic show of respect for Hollings’ past work on the committee.
“Maybe it’s the military background, I don’t know, but he was always very gracious to Hollings in that way,” Rudd said.
South Carolinians have been as divided as the rest of the country in their views on the Arizona senator. Felkel described the state’s perception of him as “nothing short of schizophrenic.”
But at this point in his career, little seems to get under McCain’s skin.
"Even those that want me to die don't want me to die right away,” he joked this week in a video thanking supporters. “So that’s good.”
The cancer diagnosis has hardly deterred McCain from his work. This week the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman released a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, perturbed by the lack of a vision behind the effort seven months into Trump’s presidency.
And in his dramatic vote to kill the Senate GOP’s health care bill last month, bemoaning the rushed process that preceded it, McCain cemented the “maverick” label that has become so closely associated with him over the years.
Undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment back home in Arizona, McCain was not available to comment. But Graham said he has spoken to McCain every day, and now that the tumor has been surgically removed, “he hasn’t felt better in a long time.”
Those close to McCain aren’t tying a bow on his career just yet.
"His legacy isn't over. He's got another chapter,” said Weaver. “And knowing John, that chapter is going to be chock full of adventure."