They don't call South Carolina the home of bare-knuckle politics and dirty tricks for nothing.
The state, which holds a key Republican presidential primary on January 21, has a history of vile accusations, whispering campaigns, untraceable automatic phone calls to voters that spread false rumors, and hilarious political misadventures. This time, the front-running GOP presidential candidate knows he will probably be the main target. "I know it's going to get tough," the former Massachusetts governor told the Associated Press last week as he prepared to campaign in Columbia, S.C. "But I know that is sometimes part of the underbelly of politics."
Republican strategist Lee Atwater is often seen as one of the most effective practitioners of dirty tricks in South Carolina, where he grew up. In a 1980 congressional race, he focused on the fact that a Democratic candidate, state Sen. Turnipseed, had undergone shock therapy in his youth. Atwater told reporters and others that the voters of his state would never elect someone who had been "hooked up to jumper cables." It was a harmful image for Turnipseed, and he lost. (Just before he died years later of cancer, Atwater apologized to Turnipseed and admitted that his tactics had been unfair and wrong.)
More recently, GOP presidential candidate John McCain was the target of various dirty tricks in his 2000 campaign. One of the most egregious was a whispering campaign in South Carolina that McCain had fathered an African-American child out of wedlock, with references to photographs of McCain with his black daughter. It turned out that McCain and his wife had adopted the girl, who was from Bangladesh, and it was a powerful story of compassion and personal commitment. Those responsible for the false rumor were never identified. McCain was also the subject of false rumors that he was a traitor while he was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam war. McCain lost the South Carolina primary to George W. Bush in 2000.
In 2008, a fake Christmas card was sent to Republican activists in South Carolina claiming to be from the Romney family and including inflammatory quotes supposedly from the Book of Mormon. It was an effort to undermine Romney, a Mormon, among evangelical Christians. He lost the primary.
Also in 2008, the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton clashed in South Carolina over which side was using race as an issue to divide the electorate and hurt the opposition.
Some political analysts argue that the worst of the dirty tricks are in the past because such efforts are more traceable today through the Internet, because so many people record what they see on video, and because the media are always on the lookout for dirty tricks.
Others, however, say the tricksters will always try to have an impact. And the stakes are very high because since 1980 the winner of the South Carolina Republican presidential primary has proceeded to win the Republican nomination.
The next week will tell the tale, and, if the past is any indication, probably more than one.