“They fight pretty rough here, that’s for sure,” said Charles Green, a retired teacher eating country-fried steak at Lizard’s Thicket in downtown Columbia, a meat-and-three popular with visiting candidates. “It’s usually a pretty good show waiting to see to what they’ll come up with next.”
Candidates here have been ambushed with accusations ranging from distorted to invented. It was during the Republican presidential primary race here in 2000 that recorded calls asked voters whether they were aware that Sen. John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child, a merciless twist on the fact that McCain and his wife Cindy have an adopted daughter from Bangladesh.
In 2008, a state Senate campaign allegedly paid an undocumented immigrant to infiltrate a crew painting the house of an opposing candidate, and then accused him of hiring illegal workers.
Two years later, then-candidate Nikki Haley was hit with two charges of adultery in the days before her run-off race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Several of her critics, including a party official supporting her opponent and an evangelical radio host, also raised questions about her sincerity as a Christian. (Haley, who was born in South Carolina of Sikh immigrant parents, became a Methodist after marrying in 1996.) The attacks were not enough to keep Haley, a favorite of tea party conservatives, from winning the nomination, and then the governorship.
“We have a rough-cut side to politics that really doesn’t fit with the gentle nature of the people who live here,” said former governor Mark Sanford (R), who managed to serve out his final term despite being caught in a spectacularly public affair with a woman in Buenos Aires that had state lawmakers demanding his resignation.
So far this year, the smear front has been quiet. But observers say the nastiest charges aren’t likely until closer to Election Day. And given South Carolina’s consistent role in anointing the eventual winner of Republican nomination battles, they don’t expect this to be the year campaign consultants decide to slip on the white gloves.
“South Carolina is a competitive state and it’s always been in important in the process,” said Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party who is advising Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “There are a lot of campaign operatives and some of them are going to make mischief.”