The Dark Art of South Carolina Primaries

"This is not politics, this is garbage."

South Carolina has a habit of blurring the line. Bob Dole's 1988 declaration, made on the floor of the U.S Senate, came in response to a memo implying new Democratic Speaker of the House Tom Foley was "in the closet," lying about both his sexuality and political plans.

The offending note was authored, in part, by South Carolina's infamous political hit man Lee Atwater.

But the attack on Foley, who had by then spent more than two decades in Congress, hardly registers in the long line of dirty political deeds committed in or plotted from the Palmetto State.

The most infamous and high-profile attack was scripted by George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, which suggested - through affiliated channels - that then-presidential rival Sen. John McCain had fathered a baby with a black prostitute; was brainwashed during his time as a P.O.W. in the Vietnam War (making him a real-life "Manchurian Candidate"); and that his wife was addicted to prescription pain medication.

President Bush denied any involvement in the smears, but McCain didn't seem convinced. He lost to Bush handily in the South Carolina primary and never recovered. Upon returning to the Senate, McCain became the president's most vocal GOP critic, although he did eventually endorse the incumbent during the 2004 campaign.

Indeed, McCain is alleged by Democrats to have called on the same "constituent contact"  group to spread accusations about his 2008 rival candidate Barack Obama's relationship with former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers.

South Carolina's governor, the Republican Nikki Haley, got a heavy dose of Palmetto political medicine during her run for office in 2010. Two men came forward during her campaign to say they'd had sexual encounters with the candidate. One of them, Larry Marchant, was working as a campaign consultant for Haley's opponent, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.

Right-wing blogger Erick Erickson summed up Bauer's strategy simply: "Ignore the issues, ignore the experience and go straight to calling Nikki Haley a whore."

This episode unfolded just as Gov. Mark Sanford was preparing to leave office, handcuffed by scandal after disappearing from Columbia to visit his mistress in Argentina. Sanford had originally denied the story, saying he'd taken time off to walk the Appalachian Trail.

As for Haley, the alleged dalliances were never proven. Marchant was fired soon after his allegations fell flat, and the governor was elected by a wide margin. Haley is now one of Mitt Romney's most prominent campaign surrogates and a decent bet to be in the mix for a shot at the vice presidency if he wins the nomination.

Now, with six candidates still nominally in the race and less than two weeks to primary day, South Carolina in 2012 is an Atwaterian dream.

("In 1988, fighting [Michael] Dukakis, I said that I 'would strip the bark off the little bastard'," Atwater told Life Magazine before he died in 1991.)

So far, less than 24 hours since the polls closed in New Hampshire, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has already called Romney's former company Bain Capital, "Vulture capitalists."

"That's what I want the people of South Carolina to think about," Perry said.

If Newt Gingrich has his way, they won't be thinking about, or seeing, much else. The super PAC Winning Our Future, to which the candidate has no official ties, has produced a 27-and-a-half minute video detailing and demonizing Romney's time at Bain. The plan, for now, is to cut the piece down to commercial-size slices and air them across the state until voting begins.

Not to be outdone, Romney-backing super PAC Restore Our Future has mailed out a flier stating, "Fact: A conservative would not give 60 million taxpayer dollars a year to the United Nations Population Fund, which supports China's brutal one-child policy. Fact: Newt Gingrich did."

Rick Santorum has more limited super PAC support, but he has enlisted Christian conservative leader and former GOP primary candidate Gary Bauer to rip Ron Paul on foreign policy. Bauer's Emergency Committee for Israel produced a minute-long ad, which was posted online Jan. 6 and will begin airing on TV today.

"[Ron Paul] is hostile to our military, hostile to our allies like Israel, and was hostile to great conservatives like Ronald Reagan. He denies that Iran is building a nuclear weapon," Bauer says. "He blames America for creating terrorism."

The candidates will meet again in person next Monday at the S.C. GOP Presidential Preference Primary Debate in Myrtle Beach.