They pick up their phones and hear strangers on the other end, touting one competitor and smearing another.
They turn on their TVs to find back-to-back ads featuring grainy footage, black-and-white photos and deep-voiced narrators delivering mostly bad news.
The primary contest here is on pace to be the most expensive advertising campaign in history, with candidates bolstered by outside groups flush with millions of dollars and eager to test whether the negative advertising that worked in Iowa two weeks ago will work in a state known for dirty-tricks campaigning.
Even as the candidates have decried the negative ads on the debate stage and criticized the outside groups that have poured vast sums into such advertising, there is no sign of a let-up.
Rick Santorum is a counterfeit conservative, one Ron Paul ad charges. Newt Gingrich has more baggage than the airlines, according to a spot by the pro-Mitt Romney group Restore Our Future, which has spent $753,100 on television advertising here.
Romney is a moderate in the mold of President Obama and isn’t electable, charges another ad by the pro-Gingrich group Winning Our Future, which has bought $3.8 million in media coverage here, a spokesman for the group said.
“Why would we ever vote for someone who is just like Obama when we can unite around Rick Santorum and beat Obama?” a Santorum spot asks.
By Saturday, ad buys are set to easily outpace the $6.9 million that was spent in 2008, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Strategists say that, unlike in past primaries, the air wars have been a race for the bottom right away.
“The thing that surprised me was that they didn’t start with sunsets and the wife-on-the-beach-type ads,” said David Woodard, a Republican strategist and Clemson University professor. “They went straight for the gut and it hasn’t gotten any better. It’s been intense, and the super PACs have made this thing a completely different ballgame.”
A barrage of negative advertising against Gingrich in Iowa worked well in slowing the former House speaker’s momentum, pushing him from the front of the pack to an eventual fourth-place finish in that state’s caucuses.
Gingrich’s supporters came into the Palmetto State with a scorch-and-burn approach of their own, tagging Romney as a corporate raider in a 30-minute documentary that was littered with inaccuracies. Gingrich asked that the film be altered or taken down, but it has gone viral on the Web.
Romney countered with an ad highlighting his success with companies such as Staples, Sports Authority and Steel Dynamics.
“Mitt Romney helped create and ran a company that invested in struggling businesses, started new ones and rebuilt old ones, creating thousands of jobs,” the spot says. “Those are the facts.”