Ask a veteran of South Carolina politics to name the ugliest chapter in his state's low-down and dirty political history and he may be slow to answer. Not because he's offended, but because there are so many acts of dark magic to choose from. There was the breathtaking smear campaign mounted against Senator John McCain during the state's 2000 presidential primary, including the subterranean charge that McCain's adopted Bangladeshi daughter was in fact his illegitimate black child. Eight years later, there were the bogus Mormon holiday cards sent to voters, purportedly from then candidate Mitt Romney, who was not eager to discuss his religion in this deeply Christian state. Two weeks before the state's 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary, a local operative described his alleged adulterous affair with the race's eventual winner, Nikki Haley, which he later recounted right down to the details of an "eighth-grade make-out session" in the back of an SUV. Haley denied the claims.
More-seasoned veterans might reach back to the 1978 phone calls pointedly "asking" voters' opinions about the faith of a Jewish candidate for Congress. Or the curious case two years later of the reporter who asked a Democratic congressional candidate about his history of "psychotic treatment." "There's no question that we play hardball," says South Carolina Republican Congressman Tim Scott. "It's a blood sport here."
That fact is not lost on any of the Republican presidential candidates as they swarm South Carolina ahead of its Jan. 21 primary--a contest that no Republican nominee has lost in 32 years. While it's true that politics is rarely a gentleman's game, South Carolina is in a league of its own. Beneath its Southern charm, the Palmetto State has a hard-earned reputation for mean, dishonest and often hard-to-trace character assassination. By virtue of its place on the primary calendar, it may also be the last place to hobble Romney before his nomination is assured. "If Romney wins South Carolina, it's game over, basically," says Scott. "So you've got to stop him here."
Romney's rivals don't deny it. Rick Perry compares his stand in South Carolina to the Alamo. Newt Gingrich says that "it would be very hard" to carry on after another loss. "We have to finish really well there," Rick Santorum says. "Some candidates have nothing left to do but get desperate," warns Tommy Hartnett, a former Congressman from South Carolina and a Romney backer. "And generally, when they do that, they get more negative."
The airwaves already reflect South Carolina's last-stand intensity. Over $9 million has already been spent on advertising by the campaigns and their allies. The super PAC (political-action committee) supporting Gingrich has dropped at least $1.6 million and may spend nearly $2 million more. Rick Santorum's camp plans to spend $1.5 million. And the pro-Romney Restore Our Future is already defending the front runner with more than $2 million.