South Carolina, Home of Dark (Unsubstantiated) 'Undercurrents' of Politics

Welcome to South Carolina, "a place famous for surfacing the dark undercurrents of American politics," says campaign reporter Jim Rutenberg. But is there any evidence for his claims of a racially charged anti-McCain smear during the 2000 presidential primary there? And is Newt Gingrich really on his "third religion"?

After Mitt Romney's comfortable win in the New Hampshire Republican primaries Tuesday, media attention shifts to the next primary, in socially conservative South Carolina, which New York Times campaign reporter Jim Rutenberg claims is 'a place famous for surfacing the dark undercurrents of American politics' in his Wednesday front-page story, 'In South Carolina, Challenges Await on Ideology and Faith.'

Rutenberg is mainly referring to an alleged incident during the 2000 campaign in which presidential candidate Sen. John McCain was victimized by anonymous phone calls (from either the George W. Bush campaign or Bush supporters) claiming McCain's dark-skinned adopted daughter from Bangladesh was an illegitimate black love child. But is there hard evidence the smear even occurred? As Brent Bozell wrote in a column in January 2008: 'No matter that McCain campaign manager Rick Davis couldn't substantiate how many of these scurrilous phone calls were actually made, or by whom.'

Rutenberg wrote on Wednesday:

Mitt Romney has now defied a generation of political gravity, doing what no non-incumbent Republican has done since 1976, winning the one-two states of Iowa and New Hampshire in his quest for the party's presidential nomination.

But on Wednesday, Mr. Romney's plane will deliver him to the tougher proving ground of South Carolina for a crucial test.

It will be there - a place famous for surfacing the dark undercurrents of American politics - that he has the opportunity to show he can overcome doubts among evangelicals and Tea Party adherents about his ideological commitment and assume leadership of a party that has spent the last two years under the sway of a conservative insurgency.

Before hitting the alleged anti-McCain smear, Rutenberg took a cheeky personal swipe at Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Perry made a point of appealing to evangelical voters with a giant prayer rally in Texas shortly before he announced his presidential campaign and has shown crosses in his advertisements; Mr. Gingrich, who is on his third marriage and third religion, has visited with pastors to assure them of his new but deep Roman Catholicism and his apologies to God. And now Rick Santorum is planning to campaign hard in the northern part of South Carolina because 'that's where much of the evangelical vote is,' said former Representative J. Gresham Barrett of South Carolina, a supporter and adviser.

Three religions? Gingrich was raised a Lutheran, became a Baptist, and is now a Catholic, but those are all denominations of the Christian religion.

Then again, South Carolina has a proud tradition of political strategists who know how to build an opposition (it is, after all, where Senator John McCain of Arizona was falsely accused of fathering an African-American child out of wedlock in 2000). And this go-round, Mr. Romney has yet to face the sort of bare-knuckled campaign tactics employed with such precision there.

Despite Rutenberg's confidence in the veracity of the anecdote, which gained widespread media acceptance, there are serious questions as to whether those smear calls actually were made. No audio recording has ever surfaced; the accusation is based on hearsay. Byron York reviewed the evidence for National Review in 2004 and concluded "there is no hard evidence that the calls occurred."