STEP UP, Y’ALL

02.19.16 5:01 AM ET

Is South Carolina Still the Home of the Dirty Trick?

Politics in the Palmetto State is supposed to be brutal. So why is everyone more or less behaving themselves ahead of Saturday’s presidential primary?

Is South Carolina going soft? 

With two days left until the GOP primary, the elbows are sharp. But we’ve hardly seen any of the much ballyhooed mud pit we were promised when the Republicans packed their bags in New Hampshire and moved the circus South.

Yes, there has been a fake Facebook page touting an endorsement from Rep. Trey Gowdy for Sen. Ted Cruz, when Gowdy actually endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio weeks ago. Rubio also starred in a robocall accusing him of supporting amnesty and had his head photoshopped (by the Cruz campaign) onto a bogus picture of him shaking President Obama’s hand. Maybe the worst mailer so far wonders why Ted Cruz says he’s against gay marriage, “BUT he has no problem taking BIG CHECKS from gay men.”

Compared to the lore of Palmetto State dirty tricks, it’s all kind of meh. Where are the mistress bombs? The knife fights? We were told to expect a cocktail of sweat and desperation to drive struggling campaigns to depths they’d never imagined—innuendo, rumors, and flat-out lies about people’s positions, and not on immigration. The hottest rhetoric so far has been on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, and that was Trump fighting with the pope.

It never used to be this way. In the days before tweets and snaps, spreading unseemly information in the days before the crucial South Carolina primary used to be ugly work of homegrown scalleywags. The best operatives had an on-again, off-again relationship with the truth and a willingness, if not a sense of genuine pleasure, in cutting their opponents’ proverbial necks.

The late Lee Atwater is the most famously ruthless product of the state’s bare-knuckled political education. “Lee Atwater was the patron saint of dirty politics in South Carolina,” said Don Fowler, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee who is a native of South Carolina. “A lot of the people who are now mature consultants were his disciples and his subordinates.”

But even Atwater had to learn his dark art somewhere and in his case, it was Harry Dent, the South Carolina consultant credited with (or blamed for?) crafting Richard Nixon’s successful “Southern Strategy” in 1968 that played on the racial tensions between whites and African Americans.

Racial and ethnic tensions have almost always been at the core of the lowest blows in the state’s modern political history. The hits orchestrated by Atwater are no exception. In 1978, he was accused of recruiting an itinerant preacher as a third-party candidate to run for Congress against Carroll Campbell and the mayor of Greenville, Max Heller, a Jewish refugee who had fled the Nazis in Austria. The candidate, who was a high school dropout who had never run for office, held a press conference two days before the election declaring, “I believe in Jesus Christ, I believe he died to save my sins. Mr. Heller does not.” Many still believe the stunt cleared the way for Campbell, an Atwater associate.

Atwater also ran the campaign against Tom Turnipseed in 1980 when Turnipseed ran for Congress against incumbent Republican Floyd Spence. Knowing Turnipseed had been treated for depression as a teenager, Atwater planted a question with a reporter to ask Turnipseed about electro-shock therapy he received, which Atwater called “being hooked up to jumper cables.” Spence won the race.

“In my book I don’t think anybody’s ever gotten lower than that,” said Dave Woodard, a professor of political science at Clemson University and veteran of GOP campaigns in South Carolina. “I think Lee Atwater set the low standard.”

Others recently have tried to meet that standard, as low as it is, and nearly succeeded.

In 1990, an Atwater protégé named Rod Shealy wanted to help elect his sister lieutenant governor. In a bid to increase white voter turnout in the GOP primary, Shealy paid an unemployed African-American fisherman to run for Congress as a Republican hoping white voters would go to the polls just to vote against him.

Sen. John McCain took his turn on the receiving end of Low Country politics in 2000, when anonymous pollsters called likely GOP primary voters and asked, “Would you be more or less willing to vote for John McCain if you knew he had fathered a black child?” The child in question was a daughter McCain and his wife had adopted in Bangladesh. 

In 2012, a mailer (anonymous again) showed up in the form of a Christmas card from Mitt Romney and his family, who are Mormon. The glossy card noted, “We have now clearly shown that God the father had a plurality of wives…

And of course, no list of offenses would be complete without the former Republican blogger who claimed he’d had an “inappropriate physical relationship” with now-Gov. Nikki Haley just before she ran for, and won, her spot in the governor’s mansion.

But somewhere along the way, South Carolina politics seem to have gotten a little soft around the edges.  Both Harry Dent and Lee Atwater apologized for some of their dirtiest tricks before they died, and with the 2016 GOP primary days away, the accusations between candidates have been sharp, but nobody’s been accused of being much more or less than a dirty liar.

“I haven’t seen anything real alarming, nobody has gone to the negative level that Donald Trump deserves,” said Dave Woodard. Woodard suspects that the RNC’s new rules changing the delegate awards from winner-take-all to proportional victories means that the race is likely to go on past South Carolina for many candidates, meaning there’s not the same reward for a knock-out blow in the primary this year.

“In the past, whoever won the state was going to keep rolling and whoever lost was out.  There was a lot more at stake so it was a lot harder fought.”

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Don Fowler said his state has never really been as awful as it’s made out to be, especially on the Democratic side where Atwater and Co. never met their match. “Our reputation far exceeds the reality,” Fowler said. “The language is harsh, but political language gets harsh. I don’t know if that’s dirty politics.”

With time running out on Thursday, the blogger who claimed to have had the affair with Gov. Haley resurrected his claims to accuse Rubio campaign staffers of originally spreading news of the alleged affair back in the day. But even that claim was one degree of separation from the candidate. In the old days, it would have landed right between the eyes.

South Carolina, time is running out for you to live down to your reputation for trash and trickery. You have one day left.