Politics & Government

From McCain foe to Palin guide

As Sarah Palin prepared for her national media debut Thursday, one of the handlers at her side was S.C. native Tucker Eskew.

A veteran political operative, Eskew was hired by John McCain's campaign Sept. 1 to serve as a top adviser to Palin. That's why he's in Fairbanks, Alaska, this week, and why he'll spend the rest of the campaign as the running mate's running mate.

Eskew played a role in another McCain campaign. But on the other side.

In the 2000 S.C. primary, he was a spokesman and advisor for George W. Bush. After McCain's upset win in New Hampshire that year, Bush mounted what some saw as a smear campaign. Allies questioned McCain's patriotism. E-mails accused him of fathering illegitimate children and fliers suggested his wife was a drug addict.

McCain blasted what he called lies and distortions. “They've unleashed the dogs of war,” he said at one point. The night he lost, Cindy McCain broke down in sobs.

“The irony of ironies is that Tucker was one of George Bush's operatives … here where they gutted John McCain,” said Dick Harpootlian, a former S.C. Democratic chairman. “Tucker's involvement obviously is another step in forgetting that what George Bush did to him here, which was despicable.”

Republicans are less surprised.

“In politics it's not unusual for these evolutions to take place,” said Richard Quinn, a Columbia consultant who helped run McCain's 2000 campaign in the state. “Tucker is … a gregarious, outgoing, friendly guy. He's not the kind of person who makes enemies. He's better at making friends.”

A communications specialist

Eskew, a 47-year-old father of three, is a communications specialist. His job: helping Palin navigate through the national media and prepare to debate with Democrat Joe Biden, all in the glare of national scrutiny.

Reached in Fairbanks Thursday, he declined to comment for this story. But friends say he didn't hesitate when the McCain campaign called after the candidate tapped the Alaska governor two weeks ago.

“Tucker was not looking for a job in the campaign,” said Tony Denny, a Columbia consultant who grew up with Eskew in Greenville, S.C. “The McCain team, to their credit, realized it's time to get the best and brightest minds you've got.”

After graduating from The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., Eskew worked as a White House intern with the late, controversial GOP strategist Lee Atwater, then a political aide to President Reagan. He and Atwater shared not only a love of politics but movies. They met regularly with a friend at Atwater's Washington apartment to watch the latest action films on a 50-inch TV.

“The three of them just loved these movies,” said Atwater's widow Sally. “Lee was crazy about Tucker.”

White House experience

Eskew went on to work for S.C. Gov. Carroll Campbell before starting his own public relations firm. After Bush won the 2000 election, he directed the White House Office of Media Affairs and later, the White House Office of Global Communications, a post 9-11 initiative to improve America's image. He formed his own consulting firm in 2004 and a year later, joined other former GOP operatives in an international consulting business.

“He really is a skilled communicator,” said Quinn. “He's very good at distilling complex themes into messages that are easily understood.”

Eight years ago, he put those messages to work against McCain. Rumors were passed along in so-called push-polls. The Bush campaign denied involvement. McCain said at the time “a special place in hell” would be reserved for the rumormongers.

When McCain supporters lashed out at negative tactics, Eskew called them hypocritical. While charges flew back and forth, Eskew accused the McCain campaign of “smearing Gov. Bush's record.”

Eskew's hiring this month set off a torrent of criticism from liberal bloggers who tied him to the smears of 2000.

But Eskew has told friends he's come to admire his one-time adversary.

Said Denny: “He's grown a tremendous amount of support for Senator McCain.”