Want an indication of how critical South Carolina could be in sorting out the muddled Republican nominating contest? With more than a week to go until the Feb. 20 election, the candidates and allied outside groups have already poured about $24 million into political ads in the Palmetto State—roughly three times the final spending tally there four years ago.
Jeb Bush's super PAC is doing the lion's share of the spending, according to data supplied by Kantar Media's CMAG. But it's Texas Sen. Ted Cruz who is at the center of the circular firing squad.
The onslaught of attacks is a sign that rivals perceive Cruz as a threat in the critical contest. In politics, a target on your back is often a sign that you're leading the pack. But it's Donald Trump, not Cruz, who's the one lapping the field. And Cruz, who sits second in the South Carolina polls, is absorbing an array of attacks from rivals who believe (as Cruz does) that the way to win the GOP nomination is to wind up in a head-to-head contest with Trump.
If there's an overarching theme to the anti-Cruz ads, it's to sow doubts about the senator's claims to ideological purity and religious piety.
One 30-second TV ad released by Donald Trump's campaign hits Cruz for "talking out of both sides of his mouth" on immigration policy, failing to properly disclose a $1 million bank loan and perpetrating "dirty tricks" against Ben Carson, whom Cruz allies suggested was dropping out on caucus night in Iowa. "Ted Cruz: the worst kind of Washington insider, who just can't be trusted," the ad declares, playing off Cruz's branding campaign ("TrusTed").
The American Future Fund, a 501(c)(4) organization that attacked Cruz over ethanol policy in Iowa, is back in South Carolina. Their new ad is tailored to the Palmetto State's veteran population. The $1.5 million ad blitz assails Cruz as "weak" on national security and misleading about his immigration record.
The Carson episode continues to dog Cruz on the trail, with rivals using it to attack the Texan's character. "How can Ted Cruz be an Evangelical Christian when he lies so much and is so dishonest?" Trump tweeted. Mike Huckabee, who hugged Trump in Iowa to exact revenge on Cruz for snagging Huckabee's old cohort of values voters, is out of the race now. But he found time this week to blast the Cruz camp's Carson smear as "the kind of low-life, sleazy politics people truly get sick of.”
As for Carson, the pediatric neurosurgeon signaled plans to remain in the race for the long haul, despite having no evident path to the GOP nomination. Instead he could play spoiler by complicating Cruz's efforts to consolidate the social-conservative vote. During an appearance on MSNBC Friday morning, Carson called the caucus episode "despicable" and "a question of character."
Cruz is punching back. He's on the air hitting Trump in a 60-second spot that pillories Trump for using eminent domain to bully an elderly widow in Atlantic City—part of what the ad calls "a pattern of sleaze." He's tweaking Hillary Clinton's server problems in a spot that spoofs a famous scene from the cult hit Office Space. And his campaign tried to undercut Rubio's conservative bona fides with an ad imagining a support group for disillusioned Rubio backers.
But even the broadside against Rubio has boomeranged on Cruz. His campaign was forced to pull the spot on Thursday night after BuzzFeed reported that one of its actors had starred in pornographic movies.
Being at the front of the pack isn't always easy, it seems.