As South Carolina primary nears Saturday, dirty politics 'not for the faint of heart'
South Carolina's penchant for hard-knuckle politics is living up to its reputation this primary season
Things feel different when the Republican primary dips below the Mason-Dixon line and into South Carolina. The weather warms up. The khakis come out. At rallies, the smell of barbecue fills the air.
And the politics? They turn downright nasty.
For a moment this week, it seemed that Ted Cruz had found the right audience to evangelize the virtues of playing nice in a state known for playing dirty.
Speaking before a buttoned-up gymnasium crowd at South Carolina's Oakbrook Prep academy, where families and conservative Christian students in bow ties and blazers listened keenly to his stump speech, Cruz hinted at the state's first-in-the-South reputation for no-holds-barred antics around primary time.
"You know, South Carolina has been buffeted with millions of attack ads, and TV ads, and radio ads, and mailers," the Texas senator told the rally at the Spartanburg school, about 90 minutes northwest of Columbia.
Then, dropping to the hushed tone he often uses to convey urgency, he reverted to his "now or never" plea for votes this Saturday.
It was a promising start. But in describing the stakes in the intensifying Republican campaign, Cruz left out any mention of legal threats, "whisper" campaigns and name-calling, not to mention the mysterious push-poll phone calls, which his campaign has been accused of ordering.
The very next morning, the Texas senator was on TV defending his remarks daring Donald Trump to sue him over ads portraying the real-estate magnate as liberal on abortion rights.
I always tell people, 'Beware of the person who says 'Bless your heart.'- Hogan Gidley, South Carolina Republican strategist
It was a far cry from the earlier days in the election cycle, when neither of these two candidates would insult the other.
"There is a time and season in a campaign for policy differentiation," Cruz told MSNBC. "Of course it was always headed for this."
'Slit your throat'
So it goes with primary season in what American pundits have called the dirty South, despite its veneer of gentility.
If Iowa and New Hampshire are where presidential candidates make their mark, the campaign's entry into the South is where the marks become smears, according to Hogan Gidley, a native South Carolinian and former senior adviser to Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who pulled out of the Republican race this month.
"It's tough in the South. It's not for the faint of heart," Gidley says. "The beauty of politics in the South is that we slit your throat, but we'll do it with a smile."
"That's why I always tell people, 'Beware of the person who says 'Bless your heart.''"
The partisan tactics here are often more underhanded than overt.
"It's pieces of mail. It's private phone calls. It's flyers stuck in the windshields of cars outside churches before a primary," says Bruce Haynes, a South Carolina native and Republican consultant with Purple Strategies.
The flyer "might misrepresent people's positions on issues," Haynes says. "It's done in a Southern way, where you end up like a buck in deer season. You just never see the bullet coming."
Dirty tricks have become so synonymous with South Carolina that Charleston's Post & Courier newspaper even set up an online "Whisper Campaign" site for residents to report suspicious campaign subterfuge.
That's not quite the image of the sophisticated, hospitable South that native South Carolinians like to project.
In fact, retired teacher Betty Richbourg, attending a recent Jeb Bush town hall in Columbia, took issue with some of the foul language being lobbed by candidates, and wondered how presidential it is for a candidate like Trump to blast Cruz as a "liar" during a nationally televised debate, as he did last week.
"I think it's very disgraceful, especially for someone running for president of the United States," she said. "Politics is really dirty this year. But I think it's dirty all over, not just South Carolina."
Strange phone calls
Veteran political operatives, of course, have long known of the Palmetto State's reputation for sleazy politics.
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham warned last week that no candidate should mistake polite Southern sensibilities for weakness: "If you are not ready to play, don't come to South Carolina," he said.
This is the place where Senator John McCain was targeted in 2000 by whisper campaigners who flooded talk radio stations with phone calls implying he had fathered a black child out of wedlock. (McCain, who lost the primary to George W. Bush, actually has an adopted daughter of Bengali descent.)
It's also the state where Mitt Romney, in 2008, was the subject of thousands of bogus Christmas cards sent out to South Carolinians a month before the primary vote, falsely suggesting he endorsed polygamy.
Political mailers have appeared again this year, as have strange toll-free phone calls from fake pollsters.
Jason Pawlak, 34, has had his mailbox stuffed with flyers giving him reasons not to vote for Trump.
In the northwest city of Anderson, S.C., Nicole Walukewicz has been getting about 10 of the "push-poll" robocalls a day.
"They're annoying," she said. "They ask the same thing: If you were to vote today, who would you vote for? If you hit your next choice, usually there's some negative comment about your second choice."
When Walukewicz chose Rubio, an automated voice purporting to be with Remington Research asked her: "Did you know that Marco Rubio and the Gang of Eight are for amnesty?"
After several calls, the 58-year-old horse rescue worker began experimenting with different options. The only non-negative choice, she said, was when she opted for Cruz.
"South Carolina has some of the dirtiest politics I've ever seen in my life," Walukewciz said later. "I thought the debates had been relatively civil until they got to South Carolina. Then it was just game on."
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Although Remington is the firm operated by Cruz's campaign manager Jeff Roe, notorious for a ruthless, anything-to-win approach, the Cruz campaign has denied any involvement.
With a newly winnowed field going into South Carolina, anything may seem like fair game as voters reassess their choices for Republican nominee.
For the first time in a national poll this week, Cruz edged out Trump for first place in a new NBC/WSJ survey, with 28 per cent favourability among Republican primary voters, and Trump trailing slightly at 26 per cent. Rubio followed with 17 per cent, then John Kasich at 11 per cent. Ben Carson and Jeb Bush rounded out the bottom with 10 per cent and 4 per cent respectively.
Nobody in the Republican field has been spared from attacks, but at a recent town hall for Bush in Columbia, several voters questioned whether Bush was simply "too nice" to punch back as hard as he might need to in South Carolina.
His father, former president George H.W. Bush, hired Lee Atwater, the South Carolina-born campaign manager who turned negative campaigning into an art form.
The younger Bush's campaign manager, Danny Diaz, reportedly convened a conference call last week ahead of the South Carolina primary, warning top aides to beware of "dirty tricks" that could come from Rubio's team.
Asked outside the Jeb! campaign bus on Thursday how the Bush team would need to respond to possible vicious attacks in the lead-up to Saturday's primary, Diaz laid out the plan in two words: "Fire back."