In a makeshift media room in the TD Arena in Charleston, S.C., Rick Santorum clutched his wife tightly as he responded to a question about a flyer campaign accusing her of having had a relationship years ago with an abortion doctor.
“I don’t think I need to comment about scurrilous and ugly campaign tactics,” the candidate seeking the Republican presidential nomination said, moments after giving a speech to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
The flyers, recently placed under the windshield wipers of cars at a campaign stop in South Carolina, raised questions about Santorum’s pro-life credentials.
“It’s the ugliness and the ugly side of this process,” the former Pennsylvania senator said.
A leaflet campaign about Santorum’s wife; allegations from Newt Gingrich’s second wife that he asked her for an “open marriage” — all coming days before South Carolinians vote in the third primary of the season.
“Welcome to South Carolina,” chuckled Clemson University political science Prof. David Woodard, who is also a Republican political consultant.
“There hasn’t been a word in Iowa or New Hampshire," Woodard said. "Then you get here and you hear this about Santorum’s wife and [now] Gingrich. Isn’t it ironic?”
Questions have been raised about the timing of the interview with Gingrich's ex-wife and whether she succumbed to pressure from his political opponents to break her silence.
However, it's hardly suprising to some that the accusations would come out South Carolina.
“We’re reaching new lows here in South Carolina,” Woodard joked.
"New lows" may be a bit of an overstatement, as Woodard conceded, knowing full well the history of a state that has become infamous for political mudslinging and dirty tricks.
Despite the Santorum flyers and Gingrich's ex-wife's accusations, the personal attacks and whisper campaigns that made the state politically infamous have been replaced by SuperPACs — political action committees that can spend unlimited amounts of money to run advertising to attack their opponents.
“It's a new animal. It moved the needle in Iowa, we'll see if it moves the needle here,” South Carolina Republican Party chairman Chad Connelly said.
Before the SuperPACs, the negative campaigning consisted solely of spreading negative rumours.
“Some of the stuff that has gone on in the past 30 years is unbelievable — nasty,” Connelly said.
Many political observers agree that the current nastiness was largely fuelled by Lee Atwater, a former South Carolina political operative known who schooled future operatives in his no-holds-barred style of political campaigning.
During the 1980 congressional election, for example, Atwater, who was consulting a South Carolina incumbent Republican, accused the Democratic rival of having been hooked up to “jumper cables” because he underwent electric shock therapy in his youth.
In 2000, Arizona Senator John McCain, in a tight battle with then Texas Governor George W. Bush, was the victim of whisper campaigns that included deliberately racist charges that he fathered an illegitimate black child and that his wife was a drug addict. Questions were also raised about McCain’s mental health due to his years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Most recently in 2010, during her run for governorship of the state, Nikki Haley was accused of having affairs.
However, the importance placed on winning the state, specifically for Republicans, apparently trumps all other considerations.
“This is do or die here. For 30 years now we’ve picked the nominee here,” Connelly said. “So everybody knows they got to do well here or they're not in it.”
And the race has gotten surprisingly tight, recent polls suggest.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who came out with good poll numbers in the state following his win in New Hampshire, has seen his support slide and a surge for Gingrich.
TV ads inundate voters
The pressure to succeed in Iowa has led to a flooding of political advertisement this year. Turn on a local television station and its not uncommon to see five or six ads in a row supporting or slamming a particular candidate.
Connelly said no advertising slots are left — the candidates or their SuperPACs have booked all television advertising space leading up to Saturday's vote at a cost of more than $50 million.
SuperPACs — which sprang to life following campaign financing and freedom-of-speech court rulings, including the Supreme Court — can raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash. The only restriction is the group cannot co-ordinate its actions with the candidate it hopes to help.
In Canada, “third parties” similar to PACs or SuperPACs cannot directly donate to a candidate and can only spend a total of $150,000 on advertising to promote or oppose that particular candidate, according to the Canada Elections Act.
But during this Republican campaign, the SuperPACs have spent $24 million in blistering attack ads vilifying their opponents and are reportedly outspending the actual political campaigns by a ratio of 2 to 1.
In South Carolina alone, Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney group, has reportedly spent about $2 million in ads decrying Gingrich and Santorum.
The candidates have taken turns blasting each other for the ads. Santorum slammed Romney for a SuperPAC ad that criticized him for supporting the right for a convicted felon to vote. Romney criticized Gingrich for a SuperPAC ad that accused him of being corporate raider during his years running the investment firm Bain Capital.
While the candidates condemn the SuperPACs, they are undoubtedly beneficiaries of those that attack their opponents.
"They are carpet bombing the upstate with mail and phone calling. It’s a bombing campaign I’ve never seen the likes of,” Woodard said. "We get negative mailers and phone calls. We never got phone calls that said don’t vote for Rick Santorum or so and so."
But Woodard said the SuperPAC ads are not personal. Instead, he said, they usually attack someone’s record or alleged record, since many of the facts of the ads don’t necessarily hold up to scrutiny.
“It’s low in the stomach but above the belt,” he said. "It’s not as personal but just as hard hitting”
Connelly believes this year’s primary has been relatively “tame” in comparison with previous years: “I think people's records and results is fair game and that’s what you are seeing coming out.”
However, South Carolina Republican RepresentativeTim Scott dismissed the bad political reputation of his state.
“I wouldn’t say we have nasty political races — we have pointed political races," Scott said. "We believe strongly if you want it, you have to go get it. And If want to go get it, sometimes you scuff your knees, you scuff your elbows, but at the end of the day you learn how to win.”
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