ATLANTA -- Former state Senate research director, mother of two and first-time candidate Joy Hawkins awoke the day before her July primary to find fliers spread around her neighborhood saying she had had an abortion.
Mrs. Hawkins, a suburban Atlanta attorney, is contemplating a libel lawsuit and said she expected better of her Republican opponents than to sully her reputation with such a base political attack.
"It's like the question, `When did you stop beating your wife?"' Mrs. Hawkins said. "That's what you get for trying to run a good, clean, campaign ... the Republican Party is supposed to be the one with moral, Christian principles and higher standards."
The GOP that bills itself as the party of "family values" and "Christian principles" also is producing some of the nastiest campaigns around, with charges of abortion and infidelity becoming nearly routine in primary races, candidates say.
The results have left some losers so bitter that they are refusing to endorse GOP primary winners this fall.
The dirty campaigning isn't limited to legislative races. In this summer's GOP runoff for lieutenant governor, one candidate used 4-year-old Las Vegas hotel phone records to question whether the other made a call to an escort service.
"It's the worst kind of politics when you go around accusing people, whether it's a woman of having an abortion or a man of an extramarital affair," said state Sen. Ed Boshears, R-St. Simons Island, who lost a three-way primary to Tommie Williams, a Christian conservative candidate.
Mr. Williams admitted telling a Boshears supporter that the senator propositioned a woman.
"How can they call themselves a Christian or run on Christian principles? How can you engage in that kind of politics? I think it's blasphemy," Mr. Boshears said.
Neither Mr. Boshears nor Mr. Williams' other opponent, former state Rep. Willou Smith, believed the pine-straw broker had a prayer in the primary, despite his personal wealth.
But a 1987 vote by Mrs. Smith for a narrowly drawn bill to allow an abused juvenile to petition a judge for an abortion proved an easy target for Mr. Williams. And a whisper campaign that Mrs. Smith had an abortion was reprised from her 1996 race for secretary of state, when she lost to David Shafer in the primary.
It was a threatening letter which included a promise to expose "what a [filtered word] you are" that prompted her to go to the FBI, said Bill Smith, her husband.
The Smiths blame Mr. Williams, and his political consultant, Linda Hamrick, who is employed by strategist Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition.
"They will cut your throat in the name of the Lord, and that means anything goes," Bill Smith said.
Ms. Hamrick and Mr. Williams rejected the notion that they waged a whisper war.
"I cannot lie and live with myself," Ms. Hamrick said.
Rather, she pointed to the rumor that Mr. Williams was gay -- which if true could be a death sentence for a religious right candidate.
Willou Smith "personally called people and said he was gay," Ms. Hamrick said. The rumor is "absolutely not true. He's highly moral."
The rude invective and personal intrusions are not, in fact, becoming standard in the GOP, Ms. Hamrick said. Instead, it is a candidate's personal choice that determines the way a campaign is waged.
"This is less about Republicans than individual standards," Ms. Hamrick said.
Mr. Boshears believes the line that politicians won't cross to win is fading.
He cited the GOP campaign against Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta. A proposed party political action committee newspaper ad featured a picture of Mr. Walker, who is black, beside a photo of white Democratic nominees running in white-majority districts.
"I think that's inappropriate.... If they want to contrast his voting record with any Republican candidate, they can do that. But when you run the picture, the inference is it has some racial implication," he said.
For her part, Mrs. Smith said she no longer wants to do what it takes to run a Republican campaign after several decades of public service in local and state politics.
"It is killing Republican politics," she said.