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At a Jan. 8 event at Chiefs Wings and Firewater restaurant in Greenville, Santorum directed the packed crowd's attention to a row of television screens over the bar tuned to a football game. "Hey, who's that on TV up there!" he said excitedly, as an image of his face beamed out. But Santorum seemed unfamiliar with the advertisement. "That's some group out there running it for us. We're grateful to them." By the time he was done speaking, ads for Romney and Ron Paul had also floated across the row of screens.
On TV and radio here, Gingrich and Perry are already hammering Romney for allegedly looting small businesses while he was an executive at Bain Capital in the 1980s. Gingrich has also unveiled an ad spotlighting Romney's changed position on abortion, charging that his Massachusetts health care law included "taxpayer-funded abortions" and concluding, "He can't be trusted." These are just warm-up acts. As one Santorum adviser says of the next primary fight, "It's gonna be bloody." It almost always is.
South Carolina politicos say the state's anything-goes culture has existed for decades, and they trace it back to one man: Harvey Leroy "Lee" Atwater. During the 1980s, the brash Republican operative, known for playing blues guitar with as much zest as savaging opponents, became a local political kingmaker. It was Atwater who was widely accused of planting that press question about a Democratic candidate's mental health. He denied that specific charge but gladly told reporters the man in question had once been "hooked up to jumper cables." He was also accused of--and also denied--masterminding the 1978 telephone poll that repeatedly asked pointed questions about congressional candidate Max Heller's Jewish faith. Atwater would rocket to stardom as George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign manager and Republican Party chairman before his death from cancer at age 40. Back in South Carolina, he left behind disciples and admirers of his remorseless style, as expressed when he vowed at the start of Bush's campaign against Michael Dukakis to "strip the bark off the little bastard." The Atwater style, says local Republican operative and blogger Will Folks, "is part of the playbook. That sort of whisper campaign."
Sometimes it's more than a whisper. In 1990 a GOP operative named Rod Shealy was trying to help his sister win a race for lieutenant governor. Hoping to drive up white turnout in the race, he recruited an unemployed black man with a criminal record to run for Congress, paying him $900 and covering his $2,400 filing fee. Shealy was convicted of violating state campaign laws but paid just a $500 fine and returned to politics after a short hiatus.