Democrats used to say famed GOP political consultant Lee Atwater was so successful because he brought the sensibilities of a street brawler to political campaigns. They weren’t wrong. Atwater learned the ropes in his native South Carolina, part of the solidly Democratic South in the mid 20th century. “Republicans in the South could not win elections by talking about issues,” he once said. “You had to make the case that the other guy, the other candidate, is a bad guy.” The height of Atwater’s success—and perhaps his willingness to tear down the opposition—was in running George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. Bush defeated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the son of Greek immigrants, by portraying him as an out-of-touch liberal elite and by running one of the most infamous attack ads of all time. The Bush campaign TV spot told the story of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman on weekend furlough, a program supported by Dukakis. It struck a chord with voters. Atwater always found a way.
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