» View our political blog, with live updates and analysis of the South Carolina primary.
COLUMBIA, S. C. — The race for the GOP presidential nomination veered into tawdry territory Thursday, a day already filled with unexpected twists and turns.
That an interview with an ex-wife of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggesting he sought an open marriage surfaced just before Saturday's Republican primary election came as no surprise to political observers.
"You come to South Carolina, we drag out all the dirty laundry," Clemson University political science professor and pollster Dave Woodard said. "Then we try to find out some more. This race this year has been wicked."
The ABC News interview with Gingrich's second wife came on the heels of new results in the Iowa caucus that put Mitt Romney in second place and Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropping out of the race and endorsing Gingrich.
At Thursday night's Republican debate in Charleston, Gingrich said he was "appalled" CNN moderator John King asked about his ex-wife's allegations. He denied her claims and condemned "the destructive, vicious negative nature of much of the news media."
Woodard said the state's voters expect to hear the worst about candidates and the 2012 presidential race is no exception.
"It's just kind of expected that if there's a campaign, it's going to come out," he said. "A lot's at stake and people are used to dirty campaigning, so that's what you get."
He blamed the role of the South Carolina primary in picking a president. The first-in-the south election is seen as the first real test of whether a Republican can connect with the party's conservative base.
But Woodard said there's no explaining South Carolinians' fascination with the underbelly of politics, something that's shown up in local and state elections over the years, too.
"Maybe there's something in the water," he said. "Whatever it is, it affects them."
Kris Visk, a retired first-grade teacher and former hospital chaplain from Spartanburg, shrugged off the suggestion that South Carolina politics were nasty.
"I think that southerners are very passionate about their politics, about their values and about their faith," Visk said. "It always digresses eventually."
The characterization did bother Phil Davis, a farmer from Greer. He said the state is traditionally seen as a place to test the staying power of candidates by getting tough.
"They think of it as a good thing here, I guess," Davis said. "But I don't think the people are like that at all. It's not what I feel or what a Christian would be excited about."
Woodard said there's been plenty of publicity about the seemingly non-stop negative ads filling the airwaves, funded by so-called "super political action committees" that are exempt from spending limits.
But voters here are also being inundated by automated telephone calls and mailing, Woodard said. Visitors to a recent Romney rally on an upstate college campus even found anonymous anti-Romney fliers on their cars.
As the frontrunner, Romney has been a target of much of the negative campaigning, particularly his time at Bain Capital, a firm he founded that attempted to turn around troubled companies, often resulting in the firing of employees. Perry has labeled Romney a "vulture capitalist," and Gingrich has accused his practices of being "exploitive."
Romney's personal wealth has also been a topic of criticism since he has refused to release his taxes but acknowledged paying lower rates than the average American worker on his investment earnings and dismissed $370,000 in speakers fees as not much money.
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