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Rival camps say McCain exaggerating attacks on him

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  • John McCain created "Truth Squad" to counter attacks in South Carolina
  • Rival campaigns say McCain is overplaying attacks to gain sympathy
  • Arizona Republican victim of dirty tricks during 2000 presidential campaign
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By Peter Hamby
CNN South Carolina Bureau
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COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- The balmy South Carolina campaign trail may be getting unusually frosty for GOP Sen. John McCain as rival strategists offer fresh criticisms of his campaign's tactics.

John McCain campaigns at the T-Bones Steakhouse in Lake Wylie, South Carolina, Wednesday.

Over the last week, McCain's South Carolina "Truth Squad" has arranged multiple conference calls to defend its candidate from negative campaigning.

But opponents say his campaign has been exaggerating the attacks against him -- taking advantage of the ghosts of 2000 in a bid to win sympathy from the media and voters.

In 2000, McCain was the target of a whisper campaign alleging that he fathered a black child while married to his wife, Cindy. The truth was McCain and his wife had adopted their daughter, Bridget, from Bangladesh.

In 2008, the Arizona senator's staff is "trying to make McCain the victim," said senior Thompson adviser Rich Galen.

"But 'the victim of what?' is, I think, a legitimate question. His victimhood is kind of empty," Galen said.

Rival strategists said that's because McCain has not been the target of the same kinds of dirty tricks that helped end his presidential bid in the state eight years ago.

Until a few weeks ago, McCain, long an underdog here, was hardly mentioned in rival Republicans' South Carolina campaign mail. Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani took the most flak, usually from Mitt Romney supporters focusing on taxes and immigration. Video Watch how the South Carolina is up for grabs »

Just days ago, an independent pro-Huckabee group named "Common Sense Issues" began a push-polling campaign -- asking questions that raise negatives about the candidate. In it, they attacked McCain on abortion, but also took aim at the records of Romney and Thompson.

The only smear directed exclusively at McCain, however, was engineered by "Vietnam Veterans against John McCain." The group mailed a cartoon flier to state newspaper editors calling the senator a "songbird" and accusing him of betraying his fellow veterans.

The flier, which was not sent to voters, was further distributed by the McCain campaign, which e-mailed a scanned version to national and local reporters, before arranging a conference call to condemn it.

Ed Rollins, Huckabee's national campaign chairman, said the flier hardly stacks up to what McCain faced in 2000. The McCain campaign and the press, he said, "know what's real and what's not real."

[The year] "2000 was a long time ago," Rollins said. "I think to come in here and say the bogeymen are coming again ... they haven't come."

Terry Sullivan, Romney's state director, accused McCain's camp of over-hyping the flier attack.

"The senator doth protest too much, methinks," Sullivan said. "That's from Hamlet. Anger ended his campaign too."

Nevertheless, the McCain "Truth Squad," made up of campaign surrogates in the state such as Attorney General Henry McMaster and House Speaker Bobby Harrell, remains at the ready. The effort began on January 8 to "counter any negative or misleading attacks targeted at John McCain," according to a release.

On Saturday, the campaign e-mailed volunteers urging them to report any "malicious messages" and negative phone calls to the "McCain Truth Hotline."

"Technology now allows for information to move so much faster," McCain spokesman B.J. Boling said. "We found out much faster that these fliers were out there."

Despite the seemingly modest initial distribution of the anti-McCain fliers, Boling defended the amount of publicity his campaign gave to the smear.

"When you are attacked like that it would be irresponsible not to respond, because we have no idea how big the mailing is."

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Galen said the "Truth Squad" is simply dishing up red meat to the national media, which is eager to craft a narrative about McCain redeeming himself in South Carolina.

"The notion that's sort-of in the mind of especially the Northeast media, that somehow South Carolinians owe John something from 2000, that's just not true," Galen said. "He didn't just lose by an eyelash here, he lost big." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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