South Carolina: Raising the Stakes, Risking the Wrath

It became clear last week that recent polls out of South Carolina showing a surprising rise to the top by Mitt Romney in that state deserve to be taken seriously. Much as the other candidates would like to dismiss these reports, and pundits have long thought such an ascension unthinkable in this heavily evangelical state, Romney’s advantages in organization, endorsements, and work ethic seem to be paying off, at least for now.

In the immediate wake of this good news for the Romney camp comes a reminder to mix their optimism with a healthy dose of caution. This Michael Crowley story in the New Republic catalogues the well-known tradition in South Carolina Presidential politics of fighting as dirty as humanly possible.

Crowley details several low blows already dealt in the S.C. race, many of them leveled directly at the biggest chink in the Romney armor: the millstone of Mormonism. Exhibit 1 is a mysterious letter widely distributed just before an S.C.-based debate last Spring, wherein Joseph Smith was unflatteringly compared to Mohamed, with emphasis on each prophet’s (supposed) ambition to become a “warlord.” Even uglier, a mass email reached many S.C. voters with the message that “[t]hose dark suspicions you hide deep inside yourself about Mormonism are trying to tell you something. . . Trust your instincts! . . . the light of truth will burn through the smoke and mirrors of Mitt Romney’s movie star looks and crafty words!” Unsurprisingly, the enlightened author of this ominous counsel remained anonymous. But the religious insinuation– God is trying to tell your conscience to reject the glossy candidate of evil– was easily discerned.

These cheap shots should come as no surprise in a state whose high-stakes primary position and lowlife political operatives have combined for a very well-documented history of ugly campaigning. Romney seems to have anticipated this, by hiring for himself one of the state’s best known mudslingers, Warren Tompkins (who may already have landed his first below the belt punch, a webpage that anonymously slurred Fred Thompson’s competency, which appears to have been linked to Tompkins.) Perhaps the biggest advantage of the Tompkins hire, however, is his removal from the cast of characters that will be targeting Romney.

For one thing is clear at the moment, as Crowley notes: of all the top candidates seeking South Carolina votes, no one is nearly as vulnerable to scurrilous attacks in the state as Mitt Romney. Predictably, the vulnerability has nothing to do with any great mistake of the candidate’s. Despite his leading adversaries’ multiple marriages and other public failings, underhanded attacks in the campaign would almost certainly cause most damage when when focused on Romney’s religion.

Combine that purely faultless liability with Romney’s recent ascendancy in the polls (and prominent in-state endorsements), and you get a recipe for major off-the-record sniping. Romney is unlikely to escape unscathed, but would do well to continue his current stance of remaining above the fray. With the success in Iowa and New Hampshire looking more and more likely as voting season approaches, South Carolina remains the linchpin for the Romney early-states strategy. Only by keeping his own hands clean and relying on his spotless image to repel most of the mud tossed at his faith can he hope to bring ultimate vindication to these first intimations of South Carolina viability. If that means muzzling Tompkins and his ilk, so be it. There won’t likely be too many who criticize Romney for that.