The first time I met Carroll Campbell, I thought he wanted to kill me. Fortunately, I was wrong. Mostly.

In 1992, I was Pat Buchanan’s statewide coordinator in his quixotic challenge of President George H. W. Bush’s yacht-club Republicanism. And, in an odd way, Governor Campbell got me the job. I had never worked on a political campaign before, and Campbell — national co-chairman of the Bush re-election campaign — had the state’s political pros too scared to work with Buchanan.

As Hal Eberle of the South Carolina Policy Council said when he called me: “Pat asked me to find him ‘someone who’s smart enough to do the job, and dumb enough to take it.’ And, Michael, you’re the first person I thought of.”

Campbell always played for keeps, so nobody was surprised when he arranged to have Buchanan banned from the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, held in Charleston that year as a photo-op for Bush’s struggling campaign. We made the strategic decision to crash the event — after all, Pat Buchanan was undeniably a Republican — and came face-to-face with Campbell in the hallway of the (then) Omni hotel.

The governor shook Buchanan’s hand. He offered Pat a gracious, South Carolina welcome. He glanced at me, and I cowered behind my candidate and wondered if state law gave governors the power of summary executions. His words were warm, but his gray eyes were cold as ice.

Campbell wasn’t any happier the next morning when The State reported that, in a phone conversation with the Bush campaign, Campbell had called Buchanan a “son of a bitch.” Nor did his mood improve when our campaign promptly cranked out buttons reading “I’m a Campbell S.O.B.! Vote Buchanan!”

Not long after the presidential primary, I was at the governor’s mansion and Gov. Campbell took me aside for a private chat. I swallowed hard several times and then listened in stunned silence as he told me he thought I’d done a good job on the Buchanan campaign. The primary could have devolved into an ugly smear-fest focused on race issues (David Duke was on the ballot in South Carolina that year, too). But, instead, we focused on economic issues, and South Carolina came out of it looking good. That — and the fact that he creamed us at the polls — was all Campbell really cared about. “You ran a good campaign,” he told me.

Wow. I left amazed. The governor was, well, nice.

Far from crushing my political career, working for Buchanan made it. Campbell didn’t seek revenge, and I went on to work some 50 campaigns as a GOP flak.

Now let me tell you the rest of the story of the 1992 campaign for president:

You might remember that President Bush’s choice of Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle was a snap decision, a surprise that caught everyone (including, unfortunately, Sen. Quayle) off-guard and unprepared.

Local political operative Rod Shealy was at that convention, and after seeing Quayle –young and energetic, with TV-friendly good looks — he said, “Damn, that’s an Indiana Carroll Campbell!” When asked for his reaction to the choice of Quayle, Shealy told a reporter, “That tells me how close Carroll Campbell came to being on the ticket.”

After that quote appeared in South Carolina newspapers, Campbell found Shealy and told him, off the record, just how right he was. “I was a finalist,” the governor confided, “and it was very, very close.”

A lot of things were decided by that fateful choice. If Bush the Lesser had chosen Campbell rather than Quayle, the press would have lost the storyline of the inept VP who couldn’t spell “potato.” The loss of Lee Atwater — considered by many the greatest blow to Bush’s re-election hopes — would have been mitigated by the presence of Atwater’s lifelong political partner, Carroll Campbell.

Campbell was comfortable with movement conservatives in a way that Bush never was, and he would have prevented a Buchanan-style charge from the Right. And if Ross Perot had still decided to run (it’s widely believed he was encouraged by Buchanan’s relative success), Campbell would have been the perfect person to take on Perot. Give Bush most of the Perot vote, and Bill Clinton’s 43 percent would have meant another four years in Arkansas … and four more years of a Bush/Campbell administration.

And does anybody doubt where that would have led? As Rod Shealy put it: “Carroll Campbell was a coin toss away from the presidency. He would have been VP, and he would have been president. Period.”

So why didn’t it happen? Here’s what I know:

In the summer of 1996, I was working on a congressional race in Chicago when I got a call from someone working with the Dole campaign. Campbell was on the short list for vice president, and he just wanted to get my take on some “South Carolina issues.”

The Confederate flag flying over the capitol at the time was one. Campbell’s early days opposing school busing to end segregation was another. His congressional race against Greenville Mayor Max Heller, in which Heller’s Judaism had become an issue, was still another.

It was a long, uncomfortable conversation.

“Look,” I told the guy from the RNC, “these things are all part of South Carolina politics, which means they’re going to be part of any campaign Carroll Campbell is in. He is politics down there, not Strom Thurmond or anyone else.”

A few days later, Bob Dole named Jack Kemp as his running mate.

I’m sure the Dole people, like the Bush people before them, had that same conversation with people much more knowledgeable and influential than me. I was just another politico pointing out the obvious: that Carroll Campbell was too much like the state he governed to ever be the Republican nominee for national office.

Like so many in South Carolina politics, Carroll Campbell played hardball. Like many, he also knew at a certain level that he was playing, that politics shouldn’t be taken too personally. He knew issues like race were politically powerful, so he used them. But he was smart enough to know that using those tools to win here meant his political career was all but certain to end in South Carolina, too.

I admire the fact that he played hard, but in politics it is possible to play too hard — so hard you play yourself right out of the game. That is the lesson, and the legacy, of Carroll Campbell.

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