With just two days until the all-important South Carolina primary on Saturday, Newt Gingrich has toiled mightily to adhere to the state's time-honoured tradition of nasty politics, releasing attack ads against front-runner Mitt Romney that portray him as a ruthless corporate raider during his years at the helm of Bain Capital.
New polls suggest Gingrich is gaining ground on Romney, particularly after his strong debate performance on Monday night in Myrtle Beach, two hours up the Atlantic coast. Another debate is scheduled for Thursday night in Charleston, affectionately called Chucktown by some South Carolinians.
Yet Romney — the former governor of the northern, liberal-leaning state of Massachusetts — is still sitting atop the polls in the staunchly socially conservative place that fired the first shot against Union forces in the U.S. Civil War 151 years ago.
It's an achievement many hadn't believed was possible, especially since Romney did so miserably in the so-called Palmetto State in 2004, during his first run for president.
But even Romney's Mormon faith doesn't seem to be hurting him this time in South Carolina, where 60 per cent of the state's Republican primary voters are evangelicals who distrust Mormons more than they do Muslims, according to numerous surveys and studies.
Is it a sign that the state is changing?
America's former envoy to Canada thinks so.
"Some people want to look at us in the prism of the mid-19th century, but we just elected our first female governor, and she's of Indian descent, and we have two black congressmen," said David Wilkins, a South Carolinian who served as U.S. ambassador to Canada from 2005 to 2009.
"We are very much in the 21st century."
"While the level of dirt is pretty different this time — it's certainly not nearly as dirty as it has been in past years — it's still a very conservative state," Jeff Peake, a political science professor at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., said in an interview.
"The number of people who identify with the Tea Party, for example, is double the national average here. And one of those black congressmen, Tim Scott, is in fact a Tea Party adherent."
A poll released earlier this week also suggests more than two-thirds of South Carolina's evangelical voters oppose Romney but cannot decide who they'd prefer in his place.
They're divided among the socially conservative trio of Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. They lost one of those choices as Perry ended his campaign Thursday and endorsed Gingrich
Gingrich, his Romney attack ads widely discredited as being inaccurate and unfair, took on a new tack while campaigning in the state this week: "A vote for Santorum or Perry is a vote for Romney to be the nominee," he told a crowd of supporters.
One observer believes it's not Romney's faith that is unsettling for many of the state's evangelical voters, but their hunch that he's a closet moderate.
"The bigger problem is that the state's social conservatives and evangelicals are pretty united across the board on social issues, economic and foreign policy issues, and they have a suspicion he's not really a conservative," says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
"Were his positions the same as Rick Santorum's on social policy issues, in particular, his religion would not be an issue at all."
That wasn't the case during Romney's first run for president in 2007-2008, when a supposed Romney family Christmas card showed up in South Carolina mailboxes that featured a quote from a 19th century Mormon leader saying God had many wives.
Trouble is, Romney didn't send it.
Nonetheless, the card effectively served to stoke fears and prejudices about Mormons among the state's evangelicals. Romney finished fourth in the primary that John McCain won.
That's typical of the types of whisper campaigns that are often a hallmark of Republican primary races in South Carolina, the birthplace of Lee Atwater, one of the pioneers of dirty politics in the United States.
That's because, since 1980, the Republican who wins South Carolina has gone on to win the party's nomination. Candidates tend to go for broke when they're on the ropes here.
No one knows it better than Arizona Sen. John McCain. In the days following his victory in the New Hampshire primary in 2000, he was subjected to a whisper campaign — allegedly from pro-George W. Bush forces — that suggested his adopted Bengali daughter was in fact his illegitimate black child.
Flyers showed up in the windshields of South Carolinians' cars with the sordid allegations about McCain's daughter; there were also suggestions the senator was mentally unstable.
In addition, there were phone calls from supposed pollsters seeking to malign the electorate with unsubstantiated allegations, asking voters whether they could support a man who had past homosexual experiences or a Vietnam war hero who was actually a traitor.
Bush handily won the primary, and went on to win the nomination.
Democrats, too, have sometimes stooped low to win the state, even though the Democratic primary in South Carolina doesn't have the do-or-die stakes of the Republican contest.
Former president Bill Clinton campaigned in the state in 2008 and suggested voters should cast their ballots for his wife, Hillary, since Obama was unelectable due to his race. Clinton also reminded the media that Jesse Jackson won the state's caucuses in 1984 and '88, but went nowhere.
Racial tensions, states rights and the legacy of the Civil War, indeed, still loom large in South Carolina.
Gingrich's debate performance on Monday night seemed to fuel some race-related passions. On a national holiday to commemorate civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Gingrich got a standing ovation when disputing suggestions that his recent remarks about African-Americans and food stamps were racist.
South Carolina, incidentally, was the last state to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a paid holiday for all state employees. Prior to the year 2000, state employees could choose between celebrating Martin Luther King Day or one of three Confederate holidays.
Indeed, South Carolina still marches to the beat of its own drummer. And the type of change that is beginning to alter the political landscape in nearby states like Florida, North Carolina and Georgia isn't immediately in the offing for South Carolina, Guth says.
"South Carolina is becoming somewhat more diverse in religious terms and in population terms; there's been migration from other parts of the country, although they tend to be business folks who are pretty economically conservative, anyway, although not necessarily socially conservative," he said.
"Nevertheless it's still a state where you have a high proportion of religious conservatives. It may not be as high as it was four or eight years ago, but it's still significant."
A black Democrat — U.S. President Barack Obama — won North Carolina in 2008, and could win it again in 2012, Guth noted.
"It's pretty hard to imagine that happening in South Carolina any time soon."Suggest a correction