Vandals spray-painted the words "Republican means slavery" on the door of the York County GOP campaign headquarters overnight Friday.
Party volunteers called police after discovering the message when they arrived at the office on Rock Hill's Oakland Avenue. The vandals also stole about 45 candidate signs from the front yard and spray-painted over a banner that carried a picture of Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Their messages included lettering and symbols sometimes used by gangs.
The culprits could face charges of petty larceny and damage to property, said Rock Hill police Sgt. Roderick Stinson. No one appears to have entered the office.
Whether it was teenagers playing a prank or adults looking to make a political statement, the nature of the message reflected racially charged hostilities that have flared around the country in recent days. Democrat Barack Obama is the first African-American to win a major party's presidential nomination.
At McCain rallies last week, some spectators were heard yelling comments about Obama such as "kill him" and "off with his head." At an event in Florida, a racial insult was directed at a black television cameraman.
McCain sought to quell such rhetoric Friday, saying Obama is a "decent person" and a "family man" who shouldn't be feared as a potential president.
In York County, Republican leader Glenn McCall is among the first blacks to chair a county party in South Carolina. He also is one of two black representatives on the 100-member Republican National Committee.
McCall said he believes the vandals were trying to influence voters at a time when polls show a tight contest.
"It just goes to show the election is much closer than folks would have you believe," McCall said. "We have probably the most liberal ticket on the Democratic side that we've ever seen. When I look at the polls, it's within the margin of error. There are people who are just getting nervous about that. As a result, they do desperate things."
Later Saturday, York County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Watkins responded to that assertion.
"I'm saddened, one, that this act occurred, and I'm doubly saddened that the Republican Party would take this and turn it around and spin it," Watkins said.
Watkins said he hopes whoever is responsible for the vandalism is caught and punished.
Republican Party officials announced the incident and distributed photos of the vandalism Saturday morning. Within hours, TV news stations and at least one conservative political blog, Palmetto Scoop, were reporting on it.
The vandals did their work sometime after 2 a.m., because that's when party volunteers left the office after putting out candidate signs, said coordinator Joe St. John.
Local Republicans use the converted two-story house on Oakland Avenue as a temporary base of operations during the fall campaign season. They oversee phone banks, store candidate yard signs and host party functions.
The Democratic Party rents space in an office building on East Main Street downtown.
"We'll get past this and move on," McCall said.