COLUMBIA, S.C -- Sen. John McCain, facing the political fight of his life in South Carolina, vowed yesterday to make Texas Gov. George W. Bush pay "a very high price" for the increasingly nasty tone of the Republican presidential race.
But the decision to retaliate could cost McCain as well. It risks undermining his attempt to cast himself as a non-politician, diverting attention from his message and deterring moderates and independents from supporting him.
Using imagery from his days as a Navy fighter pilot in Vietnam, McCain pledged to unleash a furious counterattack against what he described as savage "character assassination" from the Bush camp.
"We're going to respond harder than we're hit. That's an old tactic that we used in warfare," the Arizona senator told reporters aboard his campaign bus. "We don't just respond to attacks. We respond and fire back."
With 10 days to go until the Feb. 19 primary, Bush and McCain are running dead even in polls here. The winner will gain the upper hand heading into 13 Republican primaries, including California's, on March 7.
"This is the critical week of the campaign," said John Weaver, political director of the McCain campaign. "We need to win this week and not let the Bush negative attacks take hold here."
As both men returned to the campaign trail in the state yesterday, Bush cast McCain as a Washington insider who "says one thing and does another."
A new Bush TV ad assailed McCain for professing to be a political reformer while running a presidential campaign organization that is "crawling with lobbyists."
And in a new radio ad, a leading Bush supporter, Attorney General Charlie Condon, tells home state voters that McCain's campaign finance reform plan would give labor union "bosses" and "the liberal media" more control over elections.
According to McCain's leading backer in the state, those attacks are only the tip of the iceberg. Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina contended that the Bush forces are also running a "word-of-mouth" smear campaign, "under the radar," in an effort to halt McCain's post-New Hampshire surge.
"They're talking about his relationship with his first wife," said Graham, referring to McCain's divorce from his wife, Carol, after his return from a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp.
McCain, meanwhile, fired off an attack ad of his own. It compares Bush with President Clinton, calling him "untrustworthy" and charging that his advertising assault on McCain "twists the truth like Clinton."
While McCain's candidacy has been soaring in the polls since his victory in New Hampshire last week, the increasingly ugly tone of the GOP contest presents a dilemma for him.
Already it is causing some South Carolina voters to view McCain as just another politician. And, it is making it harder for the senator to reach the public with policy initiatives, such as the one he announced yesterday to fight crime and drugs.
Speaking to an audience of law enforcement officials in Columbia, he proposed a nationwide program that would pair troubled teen-agers with military veterans, who could act as mentors. But news coverage of the campaign is now devoted almost exclusively to the intensifying combat between the candidates.
McCain insisted that he "isn't going to get diverted by the flak. I'm still intent on reaching the target. And good fighter pilots don't get diverted."
Besides, he added, he had no choice. The oldest lesson in politics, he explained, is that a charge that goes unanswered gains credibility.
"We'll respond. This is not the Bradley campaign," he said. "We'll respond to negative attacks."
But McCain's popularity, here and nationally, is rooted in his personality and character.
At a McCain rally, Graham, who gained national attention in last year's impeachment fight, introduced the senator to his North Augusta, S.C., constituents as "the antidote to Bill Clinton."
As the GOP contest turns bitterly personal, McCain's image as an atypical politician -- and his chances to lure independents and Democrats into the primary here -- could be in jeopardy.
"I know the effect of negative campaigning," he said, referring to studies that show that it discourages voters from participating.
Voter surveys show that McCain's prospects improve if more independents and Democrats, who can vote in the Republican primary, turn out, as they did in New Hampshire.
At the same time, recent polling in South Carolina shows Bush with a small lead over McCain if the voter turnout is low.
McCain described himself as "energized" by the Republican establishment's escalating criticism of his candidacy.
"I'm not going to get mad about it. I'm not going to lose my temper about it," he said. "It's clear now that their strategy is to tear me down."
He described an attack late last week by a Bush supporter, who claimed that McCain had forgotten his fellow veterans after his return from Vietnam, as "a defining moment" in the campaign.
"If somebody accuses me of abandoning veterans and being a liar, I've got to respond," he said.
McCain, who only last month made a handshake deal with Bush to renounce negative campaigning, denied that he had launched a personal attack against his opponent.
Bush responded by calling McCain's negative ads "sad," even as he struck back with his own new attack commericals.
"The true nature of John McCain is evidently coming out," the governor told reporters.
The Bush campaign released a statement from its senior supporter, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, saying there was "no excuse" for McCain's negative ads and calling them "a sad commentary on the contemporary political process."
But a McCain strategist said there was no mystery about the bitter warfare on the Republican side.
"They push John McCain and smear him for six days in a row, they get a quick right to the jaw," said Mike Murphy, the campaign's media consultant.