John McCain is surging against George W. Bush in South Carolina, with two polls Thursday showing the candidates in a statistical dead heat among voters in the state where the next major GOP presidential primary will be held.
The polls, following McCain's 19-point drubbing of the Texas governor in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, have left the Bush camp scrambling to reassure nervous party officials and supporters around the country about the viability of their candidate.
The campaign challenged McCain's credentials on veterans issues and tried to portray the senator as too liberal for South Carolina's primary voters. And this weekend, Bush campaign officials plan to return to Austin, Texas, to regroup and retool strategy.
A Zogby International poll taken one day after the New Hampshire primary shows the Arizona senator leading Bush by 44 percent to 39 percent. Another poll, by Rasmussen Research, had Bush leading by 41 percent to 40 percent, a statistical dead heat.
The numbers represent an astonishing turnaround from last month, when Bush had a 20-point lead over McCain in South Carolina, and from December, when he had a 45-point lead. The net effect has been to eat into the air of invincibility Bush once carried. The campaign has responded by stepping up attacks on McCain _ a strategy many supporters have urged.
Bush told a crowd of about 350 people at a courthouse here that he is the best candidate to be commander-in-chief, while surrogates launched a more frontal attack on McCain's record. "We must have a commander-in-chief who understands the role of the military," he said.
McCain reacted with gusto to those attacks on his record on defense and veterans issues: "Well, why don't we have a real good debate on veterans affairs, defense and foreign policy? Any time, anywhere. We'll pay for the TV time."
Asked if this was a sign of desperation by the Bush campaign, McCain said, "I don't know if it's desperate, but it is bizarre to somehow allege that John McCain has not been a defender of veterans and the military."
McCain's aides said the campaign had raised $741,000 over the Internet since the polls closed in New Hampshire and received offers of help from 4,000 volunteers.
As the candidates did battle in South Carolina, where voters go to the polls Feb. 19, a number of Bush supporters around the country began turning up the public relations war, cold-calling supporters to urge calm and downplaying the New Hampshire loss and South Carolina poll numbers with reporters. This week, members of the Republican Governor's Association, which has endorsed Bush, vowed to ramp up their political machines in support of Bush.
"I think a number of people were startled, stunned and surprised (by the new polls), but not me," said Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. "The defeat in New Hampshire was stunning but the national campaign is just beginning."
Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said he was receiving phone calls from worried Bush supporters. He said many complained that Bush seemed not to get the message from New Hampshire.
"Tuesday night was bad, but Wednesday was terrible," said Kristol, who is neutral in the race. "He goes to a staged event at Bob Jones University _ a place that bans interracial dating _ reads an uninteresting speech and gets Dan Quayle to endorse him."
On Thursday, Bush sought to downplay any suggestion that he and his campaign aides have been thrown off their game by the results in New Hampshire and by McCain's apparent South Carolina surge.
"You know what I say, tell them to hold their breath," Bush said as he campaigned in South Carolina. "They've got someone on the way to the Republican nomination who is going to lead us to victory."