From NBC's Bethany Thomas
KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- After a town hall of about 1,000 people, roughly half of them students, in the gymnasium of Kalamazoo Christian High School, McCain spoke to the media about his new attack mailer against Romney in South Carolina. As he did in New Hampshire after the McCain campaign put out an attack television commercial, the senator defended his actions as responses to previous attacks.
"We had to respond to negative campaigning…We will respond," he said. "Now, we won't go tit-for-tat, but we will respond, and we will make clear that this kind of negative campaigning didn't work for him in Iowa when he attacked Governor Huckabee, didn't work in New Hampshire when his campaign attacked me, and I don't think it's going to work in Michigan where he's attacking me, and it won't work in South Carolina. So, we will respond in a very forceful fashion because we know unfortunately that these charges have to be responded to, but we're not going to go tit-for-tat with him."
In New Hampshire, the McCain camp released a television commercial that quoted local newspapers speaking unfavorably of Romney after the Romney camp put an ad out that attacked McCain's positions on tax cuts and immigration.
This time, the South Carolina mailer seems less provoked than the dual two weeks ago. When a reporter asked what exactly McCain was responding to, the senator answered, "Which one? Just choose. There's a stack of mailers this high that attack me, literally this high that have flooded South Carolina for the last six months."
One reporter noted that the new mailer, which takes aim on Romney's tax record, doesn't seem to be a response ad, but rather a direct attack on Romney.
"It's not negative campaigning," McCain said. "I think it's what his record is, particularly his positions on many issues, whether it be withdrawal on Iraq, he said he supported the surge when it's clear that he supported withdrawal. He said he supports Detroit, and yet he wanted an increase in taxes on SUVs. We could go down the list, those are matters of record and we're attack- we will point out those matters of record. It's a tough business. I said it in the debate the other night. It's a tough business for all the candidates that are running. When millions of dollars are spent attacking us, we are going to have to respond."
NBC/NJ's Carrie Dann adds from Columbia, S.C. that ever since a push-polling effort derailed John McCain's 2000 presidential bid, negativity has been a little bit prickly for Republicans in South Carolina. This week, the McCain campaign even launched a "Truth Squad" designed to rapidly respond to potential negative attacks in the days leading up to Saturday's GOP primary here.
But the new mailer hitting South Carolina post boxes shows that Team McCain plays offense as well as defense. The brochure, which touts the Arizona senator's fiscal record, also takes a direct hit at Mitt Romney for his tax policies as Massachusetts's governor.
"Mitt Romney raised taxes by 700 million," reads the mailing. The bullet points that follow claim that Romney provided taxpayer funding for abortions and that he failed to endorse the Bush tax cut plan of 2003. (McCain himself has taken heat for voting against the plan in 2001 and 2003.)
The Romney campaign responded by noting how the piece hit mailboxes in the same week that McCain's campaign launched a much-publicized "Truth Squad" intended to fend off negative attacks. "The level of righteous indignation that came out of those people three days ago just makes it all the more ironic," said Romney spokesman Will Holley.
Team Romney also questions the validity of the claims, calling into question the $700 million number and challenging sources of the information cited in the ad. Holley calls the ad "as sloppy as it is factually incorrect."
The McCain campaign says that the contrast piece is accurate and fair in light of Romney's use of negative ads against their candidate throughout the primary season. 'We've been attacked enough times by Mitt Romney to justify getting out front to set the record straight," said McCain spokesman B.J. Boling.