Republican battle for top spot turns ‘nasty’

As the fight for the Republican party’s presidential nomination departs the frozen hills of New Hampshire for the balmier climes of South Carolina, the temperature is not the only thing heating up.

A brutal battle is on the horizon as opponents to the frontrunner and former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, prepare to launch an all-out negative ad war. In particular, Newt Gingrich and his allies have vowed to stop Romney with a no-holds-barred media campaign.

As the race to secure the Republican presidential nomination heats up, the M&G looks at some of the frontrunners and their campaigns. With a substantial lead going into the New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney is poised to be President Barack Obama’s opponent in the November 2012 US presidential elections.

Supporters of the former House of Representatives speaker in a group called Winning Our Future, which is not officially tied to Gingrich’s campaign, have bought a lengthy online documentary about Romney’s time as head of private equity firm Bain Capital. When Mitt Came to Town portrays Romney and his firm as ruthless corporate raiders whose actions have cost many Americans their jobs and ruined communities.

The film is due to be released as the battle for South Carolina begins in earnest after the New Hampshire primary.

With the help of a $5-million cheque from billionaire casino-owning supporter Sheldon Adelson, Winning Our Future is reported to have booked $3.4-million of air time in South Carolina. In a state with cheap broadcast ad rates, the film will run almost constantly in the days before voting.

There is no more suitable state for the Republican scrap to get nasty. The first in the south to hit the polls, on January 21, it has a long and deserved reputation for political dirty tricks.

Nasty fight
“South Carolina is known as the absolute nastiest and most bare knuckles kind of place for campaigning,” said professor Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University, South Carolina.

Some dirty tricks have become legendary in American politics. In 1980, Tom Turnipseed, a Democrat battling for a congressional seat, was destroyed by planted stories that he was a communist and had been treated with electric shocks for mental disorders.

In 2000, John McCain’s fight against George W. Bush was marred by rumours that McCain had fathered a black love child. In truth, McCain has an adopted daughter from Bangladesh. Such rumours are usually planted by anonymous leaflets, phone calls or emails.

“South Carolina is usually an exciting race. And I am using exciting as a code word,” said professor Mark Tomkins, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina.

The main source of excitement is the looming fight between Romney and his new arch-enemy, Gingrich, who has labelled him “timid” and accused him of spouting “pious baloney”. Such language is about to get sharper via Winning Our Future.

Unlimited cash
The group is a pro-Gingrich super PAC, a new type of group (or political action committee) that is barred from coordinating with a campaign but allowed to raise and spend unlimited cash in causes it supports.

Every candidate is allied with at least one super PAC. Indeed, part of Gingrich’s antipathy to Romney is because of the impact that a Romney-allied super PAC had by spending millions of dollars against him in Iowa that withered his support.

The trailer for When Mitt Came to Town depicts Romney as uncaring and driven by greed. It interviews workers laid off after Bain bought out their companies and features an already notorious photograph of a young Romney posing with dollar bills stuffed in his jacket.

“I feel that this is the man that destroyed us,” says one woman in the film. The narrator describes the film as “a story of greed: playing the system for a quick buck”. It concludes: “For tens of thousands of Americans the suffering began when Mitt Romney came to town.”

Usually such an anti-business theme would not be expected of Gingrich, an ardent defender of American-style capitalism. Nor would it be expected to find fertile ground in conservative South Carolina. But this state, with much of America, is suffering terribly from the recession and may be receptive to an argument that portrays Romney as an uncaring chief executive who has never known hard times.

South Carolina is larger and more diverse than Iowa or New Hampshire. As a moderate, Romney is expected to have a difficult time. Though going on the stump and meeting voters in the flesh is still important, it is possible to wage effective ad wars on the airwaves. “We are the first race where the media can be used very effectively,” said Tompkins.

That should give Gingrich pause. His time as frontrunner was cut short by a Romney super PAC which is unlikely to let up in South Carolina. Gingrich’s record of controversy, his ethical violations while speaker and colourful private life provide ample ammunition. Restore Our Future has committed to spending at least $2.3-million in South Carolina.

Campaign survival
“I expect it to get very nasty, very quickly,” said Huffmon.

Restore Our Future has already been running an ad in South Carolina attacking Gingrich and Texas governor Rick Perry. The poke at Perry shows that the coming ad fight is not just going to be between Gingrich and Romney.

Perry is staking the survival of his campaign on South Carolina. He has money to spend and nothing to lose by attacking other candidates in an attempt to become the main conservative opposition to Romney.

Perry has already run attack ads against Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who was piped by eight votes in Iowa by Romney. Santorum could go negative to fight back and Jon Huntsman, who needs to make a mark in South Carolina, could also be tempted to start swinging punches.

The libertarian Ron Paul, and his army of supporters, are always outspoken and unpredictable.

Attack ads work. Gingrich discovered that in Iowa and McCain in 2000 in South Carolina as his campaign derailed and George W. Bush won the nomination. Everything is at stake in the race for a run at the White House. “It is hard to find anyone who is keen on being positive and happy anymore,” said Tompkins.

Hoffmon put it more bluntly. “In New Hampshire it is played by Marquess of Queensberry rules. In South Carolina eye gouging and groin kicking are encouraged. If you enjoy blood sports it can be good to watch,” he said. —

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