Whichever Republican candidate emerges as the front-runner when South Carolina votes today, the outcome could have more to do with a flap over the old Confederate flag than any weighty issue of policy.
It may also be decided by character assassination. For the past four days, residents have been receiving phone calls from election canvassers attacking all the leading candidates' records on issues from abortion to raising taxes. No subject seems taboo. The populist Mike Huckabee, for example, has stirred up anger among conservative white voters over the removal of the battle flag of the Confederate states from the legislature building in the state capital, Columbia, in 2000.
Last night, with many voters saying they were still undecided, the poll result seemed a toss-up between the maverick elder statesman John McCain and Mr Huckabee, the preacher turned tub-thumping politician. The other candidates – Rudolph Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson – had all but conceded defeat and trailed in the polls.
Mr Huckabee, who refers to himself as "a Christian candidate", brought up the subject of the Confederate flag during a rally in Myrtle Beach on Thursday. "You don't want anyone from out of state coming down and telling you what to do with your flag," he said of the controversy which split South Carolina down racial lines eight years ago. "In fact, if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell them where to put the pole."
His message to conservative white voters was reinforced with radio advertisements stating: "John McCain assaults our values; Mike Huckabee understands the value of heritage."
Mr McCain, dogged all week by protesters waving the Confederate flag, remained defiant, saying: "I could not be more proud that the overwhelming majority of the people of this state joined together, taking that flag off the top of the state house."
The removal of the flag from the ornate dome of the legislature, where it had flown defiantly for more than 100 years, was welcomed around the US as a long overdue victory over South Carolina's legacy of racial intolerance. But it also proved a rallying cry for white extremists, and drove up support for the fringe secessionist movement, the League of the South.
Some white Carolinians were even more annoyed when a black politician called for a statue of "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, a notorious pro-lynching governor and later a senator, to be removed from its place of honour alongside the relocated Confederate flag. Tillman participated in and encouraged lynching in the 1890s and warned others: "Keep your long Yankee noses out of the negro question".
Mr Thompson, however, refused to pander to voters about the flag. "For a great many Americans, it is a symbol of racism," he said. "I'm glad people have made a decision not to display it ... in a state capitol."
Another aspect of the rough and tumble of the Republican primary – the Democrats vote a week from today – has been the use of telephone "push polls" to smear opponents. These are fake public opinion surveys designed to scare people off a particular candidate, rather than find out what they are thinking.
The Huckabee campaign, which is being run on a shoestring and does not have a single paid worker in South Carolina, has turned push polling into a fine art – while denying it has used such underhand tactics.
But, bitter as the race has become, thus far the attacks have been largely issue-based – a far cry from the whispering campaign about Mr McCain's Vietnam War record which destroyed his bid for the presidency in 2000.Reuse content