SUMTER, S.C. -- With at least one new poll showing Sen. John McCain leading in South Carolina, George W. Bush took the offensive yesterday against his surging rival, portraying the Arizona senator as a Washington insider who had distorted the Texas governor's proposals.
The Republican presidential primary here Feb. 19, which had seemed to be shaping up as an inevitable Bush victory, has taken on the look of a dogfight.
Bush sought to shed what he called "the prop wash of defeat" lingering from the drubbing he suffered in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.
His allies, who include many top Republicans in South Carolina, accused McCain, a Vietnam war hero, of having ignored the concerns of the same veterans the senator sees as critical to any victory here.
In his appearances yesterday, Bush sought to steal the mantle of insurgency from a rival who has called his reformist campaign a crusade.
Time and again, Bush characterized McCain not as a renegade who operates solely on principle but as the powerful but compromising chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
"I'm tagged as the guy who's kind of the Washington guy, and I'm not going to let that happen to me in South Carolina," Bush said, flanked by decorated military veterans at a gracefully columned, antebellum courthouse here.
"Because you know what? He's the person who's been the Washington insider. That's what committee chairmen do."
McCain has embraced the positions of the Democratic Party on tax cuts, education and campaign finance reform, Bush asserted, calling himself the real conservative choice in the race.
David Beasley, a former South Carolina governor who supports Bush, said McCain had waffled on issues important to the state's conservative electorate, such as abortion and the display of the Confederate flag.
J. Thomas Burch, president of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition, went after the core of McCain's appeal, charging that the former Vietnam prisoner of war had forsaken veterans on health issues, from Agent Orange to gulf war syndrome, and on the difficult question of normalizing relations with Vietnam.
"He had the power to help these guys," Burch told a receptive audience that gathered in front of the Sumter Courthouse yesterday morning.
"He came home. He forgot us."
To stress that point without openly stating it, Bush publicly accepted the endorsements of five retired generals and three Medal of Honor winners hailing from South Carolina, a state saturated with military retirees whose votes McCain is counting on.
Also endorsing Bush was Thomas Moorer, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has recently made news by charging that communist China was taking over the Panama Canal.
McCain fired back with a challenge to Bush to debate veterans issues.
Dan McLagan, McCain's South Carolina spokesman, called Burch "a well-known and little-respected McCain hater" who had parted ways with the senator over Burch's insistence that the United States should have no relations with Vietnam until that country returned supposedly living prisoners of war.
McCain appeared to relish the fight.
"Why don't we have a real good debate on national security and foreign policy, any time?" McCain said, while riding in the back of his bus.
Bush aides did not duck the fight. And they said that while Bush had made similar assertions in New Hampshire -- over veterans concerns, campaign distortions and other matters -- he would do so more aggressively in South Carolina.
Two polls released yesterday indicated just how severely Bush had been damaged by his 19-point loss Tuesday in New Hampshire.
John Zogby, a New York pollster, said McCain leads Bush by 5 points among likely Republican primary voters in South Carolina, 44 percent to 39 percent, just outside the poll's margin of error.
Another poll, by Rasmussen Research, had the two candidates virtually even, with 41 percent for Bush and 40 percent for McCain.
On Monday, just before the voting in New Hampshire, a Time-CNN poll still had McCain lagging behind Bush by 20 percentage points in South Carolina. In November, the Arizona senator had trailed the Republican front-runner by 47 points.
The McCain camp reacted cautiously to the new poll numbers, with McLagan going so far as to say, "I find it hard to believe we've moved that far."
But, McLagan added, "The Bush campaign is clearly in panic mode."
As Republican leaders privately fretted about Bush's electability, the governor urged calm.
"The prop wash of defeat is going to be around for a while," he conceded.
"But you know what I say [to those party leaders]? Tell them to hold their breath.
"They've got somebody about to win the Republican nomination who's going to lead us to victory."
In truth, panic did not seem in order yesterday. A large and friendly crowd greeted Bush's classic Republican calls for tax cuts, harsher sentences for criminals and greater local control of education far more enthusiastically than his New Hampshire audiences did.