Through daughter, Republican godfather campaigns again

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 20, 2012 11:18 AM
Through daughter, Republican godfather campaigns again

By Samuel P. Jacobs

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - South Carolina Republican operative Lee Atwater wrote the book on dirty campaigning before his death in 1991, but this year, another Atwater is stirring up the political scene with hours to go before the polls open here.

Her name is Sally Atwater, the 21-year-old daughter of the notorious campaign trickster. She is an undergraduate and is heading up Students for Newt Gingrich.

It is rare for a campaign to tout an endorsement from a college student, but the Atwater name still carries such clout in South Carolina that Gingrich's campaign announced her support two weeks ago.

Sally Atwater was just 11 months old when her father died of brain cancer at age 40. He had left a deep imprint on the modern Republican Party, first as a ruthless strategist for South Carolina political leaders including Senator Strom Thurmond and former Governor Carroll Campbell, then for presidential candidates Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

She inherited the political gene. At the age of 10, she knocked on doors for her dad's friend, then Texas Governor George W. Bush, in the presidential campaign swing state of Pennsylvania. The younger Bush and Lee Atwater became close during George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign.

"I had a couple doors slammed in my face," Sally Atwater said Thursday. "It has made me tougher."

Since 1980, candidates hoping to win in South Carolina have followed Lee Atwater's campaign playbook, emphasizing religious piety and stinging opponents on the airwaves. Lee Atwater once said that Republicans in the South "could not win elections by talking about issues. You had to make the case that the other guy, the other candidate, is a bad guy."

Sally Atwater's mother -- also named Sally -- taught her to appreciate politics and her father's accomplishments.

"He was a one of a kind," Atwater said of her father. "A lot of people have said he constructed the way politics are today. My dad was just really good at reading people and understanding the way that they think."

Mary Matalin, who served as Atwater's chief of staff when he chaired the Republican National Committee, said Sally Atwater and her two sisters could easily have spurned politics.

"It would have been very easy for all of the girls with the painful passing of their father to turn away from politics and not be constantly reminded of their dad," she said.

Now a senior at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., Sally Atwater said she does not plan to make politics her career. She hopes to go to law school, then move into public health.

Still she knows that an education in South Carolina politics can lead to opportunities. It worked for her father.

"We have some of the craziest politics in America, so a lot of time it is said if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. I think he was a really great example of that," she said.

(Reporting By Samuel P. Jacobs; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Vicki Allen)