Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, campaigns in Hilton Head, S.C., Friday, Jan. 13, 2012.
You've got four guys that are make or break. Desperate men do desperate things. —Warren Tompkins, political consultant

COLUMBIA, S.C. — In mailboxes across South Carolina in 2007, likely Republican voters received a Christmas card signed by "The Romney Family" with a quotation from a 19th century Mormon leader suggesting God had several wives.

Mitt Romney's campaign, just a few weeks away from the 2008 presidential primary in a state where evangelicals look skeptically on the former Massachusetts governor's Mormon faith, condemned the bogus card as politics at its worst. The sender never took credit. And it was just another anonymous shot in the endless volleys of nasty campaigning in South Carolina.

While attack politics happen in every state, South Carolina's reputation for electoral mudslinging is well-earned.

Why there? Largely because of the high stakes. South Carolina has always picked the GOP's eventual nominee since the primary's inception in 1980. And money, nerves and time are usually running out for almost everyone but the front-runner after Iowa and New Hampshire, often leading challengers to go for the jugular.

"The ghost of Lee Atwater hangs over South Carolina like a morning fog and permeates every part of the state's politics," says Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor. Atwater, who died 20 years ago, was South Carolina's most famous political operative and a master of slash-and-burn politics.

Given the dynamics of this year's Republican presidential race, it's safe to expect under-the-radar attacks over the next week as challengers work to derail front-runner Romney before the Jan. 21 primary. The rise of super PACs — outside groups aligned with but independent from the candidates — means some of the attacks could be more public this time, but still nasty.

"You've got four guys that are make or break,' said Warren Tompkins, a veteran South Carolina political consultant advising Romney. "Desperate men do desperate things."