Talking about somebody's record is one thing, but attacking them on a personal level, I don't think that's right. —Colleen Morrow, Columbia voter
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Mitt Romney is "a Massachusetts moderate" who "can't be trusted" on abortion and other core Republican values. Newt Gingrich has questionable judgment for "teaming up with Nancy Pelosi," the Democratic lawmaker the GOP loves to malign. Rick Santorum is a "serial hypocrite" with "a record of betrayal."
That is, if you believe the crush of TV commercials on steady rotation in South Carolina.
It's where Republican presidential candidates and their deep-pocketed allies are spending millions on attack ads ahead of the state's pivotal primary on Jan. 21. And in a state known for brutal campaign tactics, the savaging has only just begun. That's because Romney's wins in the first two contests — Iowa and New Hampshire — have set up a now-or-never situation in South Carolina for opponents desperate to deny him the nomination.
"People are going to stoop to new, interesting ad tactics that we haven't seen in the past," says DeWitt Zemp, a GOP strategist who was an aide to both Bush presidents and is unaligned in this race. "They're going to go even more negative than they have in the past as a result of where we are in the election process. It's all hands on deck against Romney."
Even before the race turned south, roughly $3 million had been spent in South Carolina, with more than half of it coming from a pro-Rick Perry super PAC called Make Us Great Again. Then, a similar group supporting Gingrich, named Winning Our Future, said it planned to spend $3.4 million to run an ad attacking Romney for jobs lost during his time as an executive at equity firm Bain Capital. But so far, only roughly $1.5 million has been bought.
Not to be outdone, a pro-Romney group called Restore Our Future has reserved $2.3 million in time. It's the group behind the ad linking Gingrich to Pelosi and ribbing him for other "mistakes" or flips on immigration, health care and Iraq policy. The group spent nearly $3 million on ads attacking Gingrich in Iowa before the leadoff caucuses, contributing to his precipitous fall from the top of polls there.
As he looks to revive his struggling campaign, Gingrich ditched his pledge to stay positive and unleashed a TV commercial assailing Romney on his long-ago evolution from a supporter of abortion rights to a firm stance against them. The 30-second spot says the former Massachusetts governor can't be trusted to stand by sacred anti-abortion positions.
The former House speaker is getting even more personal with his snipes in online videos, which sometimes end up making their way to TV.
One video that Gingrich's campaign released Wednesday targeted Romney's verbal gaffes, including his misconstrued statement that he liked "being able to fire people" and his argument that "corporations are people, too." The ad also revived a decades-old story about Romney strapping a dog carrier — with family dog Seamus inside — to the roof of his car for a lengthy road trip.
Romney himself has two TV ads up: One in which he characterizes the need to bring federal spending under control as a "moral responsibility" and another in which he rips the Obama administration's National Labor Relations Board for blocking Boeing's effort to build a jet production plant in Charleston.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a top three finisher in Iowa and New Hampshire, is doing his own dirty work.
He's going hard at Gingrich and Santorum in a double-barreled attack. His minute-long ad calls out both for cashing in once leaving office. It highlights Santorum's votes to raise the debt limit, support for earmark spending and siding with "big money union bosses" on right-to-work legislation.
"Don't be fooled. Rick Santorum, a record of betrayal. Another serial hypocrite who can't be trusted," the Paul ad ends to music with a horror-movie feel.
Some South Carolina voters cringe over what they've already seen and heard — and what they know is still to come over their TV sets and radios, and in their mailboxes.
"I wish we didn't have any negative ads," said Colleen Morrow, a retired state social worker from Columbia. "Talking about somebody's record is one thing, but attacking them on a personal level, I don't think that's right."
Not everything has had a dark edge.
Lagging in the polls, Perry has two commercials touting his Christian faith, small-town values and military background.
Santorum, the Iowa runner-up, is airing one that says he's "a trusted conservative that gives us the best chance of taking back the White House." A political action committee promoting the former Pennsylvania senator is striking the same theme.
And Paul, the candidate with arguably the hardest-hitting ads, is offsetting those with a softer spot featuring testimonials from veterans describing the former Air Force officer as "a veteran's best friend."
The ad wars aren't limited to South Carolina.
Candidates and their backers are already turning to Florida, which votes Jan. 31. The pro-Romney group has bought $3.6 million in airtime for commercials there.
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont and Julie Pace in South Carolina contributed to this report.