If politics were, in fact, a game of beanbag, the South Carolina primary would be a bag of rusty nails. Alas, politics ain't beanbag. And South Carolina is just the campaign equivalent of throwing rusty nails at your rivals.
The first projectiles came on Thursday, as the remaining Republican presidential candidates descended on the Palmetto State to engage in some good ole-fashion dirt-slinging and innuendo.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) looks like the main culprit. His campaign has launched an ad called "Conservative Anonymous" portraying Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as an ideological embarrassment and tea party turncoat. It plans another attacking Donald Trump for "a pattern of sleaze." Cruz also seems to be running push polls against Trump, which the real estate mogul has deemed "very sleazy." And according to Ben Carson's campaign, Cruz's allies may be once again spreading rumors that the retired neurosurgeon is dropping out of the race.
"Whether these stories are true or not, I cannot yet confirm, but after the dirty trick they pulled in Iowa, I guess I should not be surprised," reads an email from Carson's campaign chairman.
While Cruz has skipped swiftly toward the gutter, other campaigns are warning that they're ready to join him. A super PAC supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich said it was "prepared to fight back" if former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush went "scorched earth" on Kasich. An aide to Rubio declared that "South Carolina is gonna be a bloodbath."
This all fits with tradition. South Carolina was the state where false rumors that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had fathered an illegitimate black child derailed him in 2000; where fake Mitt Romney Christmas cards (with passages from the Book of Mormon) were mailed to Republicans; and where the current governor, Nikki Haley, was accused of having an affair during her run for office. It's so bad that the Charleston Post and Courier has a web page asking people to help it track all the whisper campaigns in the state.
Dirty tricks are a feature, not a bug, of the presidential nominating process. They serve one useful purpose: showing which candidate has the stamina and mental fortitude to deal with heaping piles of shit -- which is definitely an aspect of the job they're applying for.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty touched on this during his recent sit-down with the HuffPost podcast Candidate Confessional. (The remarks come around minute 13:00.)
"George Bush said something to me once when he was running against, I guess it was John Kerry," Pawlenty recalled of the 2004 presidential election. "I was on the campaign bus with him in Minnesota, and he said, 'Look, if you haven't done this before, been really close to it, this thing is a gantlet the length of which, the intensity of which, you just can't fathom until you've done it. And the amount of daily, hourly, now minute-by-minute concentration that this takes is enormous.'"
"And he posited, and I'm paraphrasing here, that Kerry was going to break underneath that. And he did."