South Carolina has a history of dirty campaigning and many observers expect the worst as the primary approaches, despite changing laws and changing technology.

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — It’s time for South Carolina to brace for the whispers.

With some conservatives openly desperate to halt former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s momentum, voters and political operatives are girding for the kind of whisper campaigns, viral innuendo and dubious personal attacks that have inspired South Carolina’s reputation as a place where the politics are as harsh as the tea is sweet. A blitz of negative ads, paid for by outside groups, already has hit the airwaves.

“They fight pretty rough here, that’s for sure,” said Charles Green, a retired teacher eating country-fried steak at Lizard’s Thicket in downtown Columbia, a meat-and-three popular with candidates. “It’s usually a pretty good show waiting to see to what they’ll come up with next.”

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Candidates in past South Carolina elections have been ambushed by accusations ranging from distorted to invented. Most notable: Recorded calls during the 2000 Republican presidential primary asked voters whether they were aware Sen. John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child, a merciless twist on the fact that the Arizona senator and his wife, Cindy, have an adopted daughter from Bangladesh.

In 2008, a state Senate campaign allegedly paid an illegal immigrant to infiltrate a crew painting the house of an opposing candidate, and then accused him of hiring undocumented workers.

Two years later, Nikki Haley was hit with two charges of adultery in the days before her runoff race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Several critics, including a party official and an evangelical radio host, also raised questions about her sincerity as a Christian. (Haley, born in South Carolina of Sikh immigrant parents, became a Methodist after marrying in 1996.)

Haley, a mother of two and favorite of tea-party conservatives, nonetheless won the nomination, then the governorship.

Gloves off

“History always repeats itself, and this state has the reputation of playing hard,” said Larry Marchant, a political consultant who is not working for any of the presidential candidates. “I expect it to get bare knuckles here.”

Marchant should know. He is one of the men who claimed to have had sex with Haley. He offered no proof.

Others doubt this primary will be as nasty.

“We are in a new era of communications that doesn’t allow you to get away with the dirty tricks of the past,” said Wes Donehue, a political consultant who worked for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann until she bowed out of the race after a poor showing in Iowa. “You can’t go anywhere without someone being there with a video camera.”

Donehue also knows a thing or two about tricks.

During the 2008 GOP primary, reporters used Internet resources to discover he was behind the website, which anonymously attacked Republican candidate Fred Thompson.

Donehue says some tricks in 2008 were far more sordid, including a bogus Christmas card sent to GOP activists. The card, claiming to be from Romney’s family, included controversial quotes from the Book of Mormon.

Today, Donehue says super PACs have become the new way to play rough. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 allows unlimited contributions to and spending by such groups as long as they do not coordinate efforts with campaigns.

“The negative attacks won’t be anonymous, whisper campaigns,” he said. “They’ll be on TV for the world to see.”

Indeed, those super PACs already have blown a hot wind of negative airtime, propelling Romney to his first victory by unleashing a withering assault on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. And that was Iowa.

Now, it’s Romney’s turn to be on the receiving end of millions of dollars worth of attack ads, courtesy of a pro-Gingrich super PAC, on everything from Romney’s record on abortion rights to his alleged corporate greed when he ran Bain Capital.

“It’s going to be a free-for-all here, is my take,” said former Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, who served out his final term despite lawmakers’ calls for his resignation after being caught in a spectacularly public affair with a woman in Buenos Aires. “South Carolina has had a tragic history of Wild West campaign antics, and I don’t think that’s over.”

Observers say voters should expect the nastiest charges closer to the Jan. 21 primary. Given South Carolina’s consistent role in anointing the eventual winner of Republican nomination battles, they don’t expect this to be the year campaign consultants decide to slip on the white gloves.

“South Carolina is a competitive state, and it’s always been important in the process,” said Katon Dawson, a former state Republican Party chairman who is advising Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “There are a lot of campaign operatives, and some of them are going to make mischief.”

Rule changes

To be sure, some of the crudest of guerrilla tactics have been stripped from the consultant arsenal.

Campaign-finance and disclosure laws, along with restrictions on push polling and robocalls, make it much harder to deliver an anonymous smear by phone. Today’s attacks are more likely to be viral emails, YouTube videos and slashing TV and radio ads.

“They can do the negative stuff, but it’s more difficult to do the unattributed, in-the-gutter hit than it used to be,” said Richard Harpootlian, the state’s Democratic Party chairman.

One topic of whispered censure could be Romney’s faith. Some of his opponents — or their surrogates — might look for ways to quietly emphasize his Mormonism to the state’s many evangelicals.

Frank Chesno, a Romney supporter, already has heard the questions.

“It seems like a grass-roots thing, some people saying, ‘I can’t vote for Romney because I don’t think Mormonism is Christianity,’ ” said Chesno, 68, a hospital administrator. “It’s definitely out there.”

Tony Beam, the Christian broadcaster who questioned Haley’s religious identity in 2010, said he didn’t expect Romney’s religion to be a major factor because evangelicals don’t like him anyway.

“I think that if the Mormon issue was off the table, he still would not get a lot of support from evangelicals,” said Beam, who has endorsed Perry. “For most people, the focus is on his political history of being back and forth on the major social issues,” such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

But several other politically savvy South Carolinians said they fully expected a robust, if discreet, critique of Romney’s faith as others try to shove the fast-rolling Mitt-night Express off the rails.

“They have to gin up their own turnout,” Harpootlian said. “The way they do that is to scare people: ‘If you don’t turn out to support (former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick) Santorum or Perry, we’re going to end up with a nominee who believes the Garden of Eden is in St. Louis,’ ” a reference to Mormon pioneers’ early ties to Missouri and neighboring Illinois.

If Iowa’s special ring of candidate hell is being expected to eat a waffle-coated hot dog, and New Hampshire’s is the risk of being bitten by a goat, South Carolina’s torture is knowing your campaign suddenly might veer into the ditch on questions of your fidelity, faith or mental health.

The nasty tactics aren’t only distracting; they often work.

McCain was the solid front-runner in 2000 when the whispers about his “illegitimate” child took off. His support plummeted, and George W. Bush won South Carolina and eventually the nomination.

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