Perhaps it was because consultant Lee Atwater, a master of smear tactics and dirty tricks, came of age in South Carolina. Atwater later repented his tactics and before his death in 1991 apologized to his victims.
Nonetheless, the state is saddled with an enduring reputation for mudslinging politics.
The state’s nadir was in 2000 when a series of vicious attacks on John McCain, for which the Arizona senator was unprepared and unable to effectively rebut, effectively ended his presidential campaign.
“Push polls,” in which callers pretending to be pollsters spread scurrilous charges, accused McCain of being mentally unstable from his years as a POW, having fathered a black child (he has an adopted daughter from Bangladesh) and of being married to a drug addict.
In 2008, the mud flew again in the Palmetto State.
The old slurs against McCain were revived with an additional charge that he sold out his fellow POWs to the North Vietnamese and an automated phone campaign misrepresenting his record on abortion.
This time McCain learned the lesson that John Kerry failed to learn in 2004 when a smear campaign against him gave the political lexicon the term “swift boating.” The lesson is to hit back fast and hit back hard, which McCain did with “truth squads” of respected local figures.
McCain was not alone. Barack Obama saw a revival of the whispering campaign that he attended a radical Islamic school and that he is a closet Muslim. Phony Christmas cards purporting to be from Mitt Romney endorsed polygamy and made an edgy reference to the Virgin Mary. A Web site accused Fred Thompson of being a “pro-choice skirt chaser.” And Mike Huckabee imported Arkansas businessmen to rebut charges against him made by an anti-tax group.
To be fair, some of these campaigns are funded and orchestrated by out-of-state groups but the attackers must sense some kind of potential audience in South Carolina.
Of the early states, Iowa tests the candidates’ organization abilities; New Hampshire tests their skill at small group, retail politics; and South Carolina seems to have found its niche measuring how well they stand up to smear campaigns.