South Carolina, with its reputation for down and dirty politics, is where the ad war among the presidential candidates has blown wide open, in mostly negative bursts.
A week before the Feb. 20 primary, Republican campaigns and outside supporters were targeting one another, with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and billionaire Donald Trump vying for the most direct hits.
In a tweet, an incensed Trump was so mad at Cruz for challenging his conservative credentials that he threatened to sue over the Canadian-born senator’s eligibility to be president.
Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich vowed to stay positive while Democratic nomination contenders Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, were competing for African-American voters, who make up over 55 percent of Democratic voters in South Carolina.
Cruz got some unwanted attention Friday after he was forced to pull an ad that targeted Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., when media outlets discovered that an actress in the ad had been in pornographic movies. In the ad, a “therapy” session has disappointed conservatives talking about how upset they are at voting for a tea party candidate who betrayed them in Washington.
“Maybe you should vote for more than just a pretty face next time,” says a character, played by soft-porn actress Amy Lindsay as the group greets a newcomer wearing a Marco Rubio T-shirt. Lindsay is from Clear Lake, Texas, and a late 1980s graduate of University of Texas at Austin.
The embarrassing incident, which the Cruz campaign blamed on the production company for not vetting Lindsay, generated huge media buzz – not exactly the kind the campaign wanted.
“Ads’ only value at the presidential level is to generate earned media coverage,” said Northern Virginia GOP consultant Tom Edmonds. “Cruz has taken the formula and it’s backfired on him.”
Cruz quickly released a 30-second ad meant to divert attention from the porn star angle: a Hillary Clinton look-alike and two male aides destroying a computer server with a baseball bat, a pop-culture spoof of a scene in the 1999 movie “Office Space.”
“Sometimes it’s better to run a general election ad in the primary,” said Neil Oxman, president of The Campaign Group, a Democratic ad firm that is not involved in the presidential race.
He does not think Cruz will be hurt by the publicity from the pulled ad. “The ads have been secondary to what’s going on in the real world – the interaction with voters, debates and town halls,” said Oxman. Cruz also has done two ads on Trump’s use of eminent domain, mocking the billionaire’s advocacy of using public laws to seize private property, as Trump tried but failed to do with a widow’s house in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Trump appeared to take the high road earlier in the week by pulling an ad that attacked Cruz as a “Washington insider,” apparently out of an effort to be more above the fray.
But Trump lashed out Friday on Twitter at Cruz for ads and robocalls targeting Trump voters. In addition, Trump was unhappy with a pro-Cruz ad that is being released Saturday by the political arm of the conservative anti-tax group Club for Growth. “There’s nothing conservative about Donald Trump,” says the 30-second ad, for which Club for Growth Action is spending $1.5 million in South Carolina.
Trump went into high gear on Twitter, even warning that Cruz’s doing harm to him would give him standing to sue the Texas senator over Cruz’s eligibility to be president.
Meanwhile, Ohio Gov. John Kasich released two ads in the Palmetto State that were biographical, about his faith after his parents were killed in an auto accident and about how he would spend his first 100 days as president.
“Kasich may not win, but positive ads are the only way he can distinguish himself from the others right now,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
The Democratic candidate are each moving to draw African-American support, crucial in the South Carolina primary.
Clinton has two ads in South Carolina. One, called “Broken,” shows the disconnect between black communities and police. The other, “25 years,” has former Attorney General Eric Holder, who is African-American, talking about his long friendship with the former secretary of state.
Sanders on Friday released a four-minute online ad featuring the daughter of Eric Garner, a New York man who died after being put into a police chokehold in 2014. Her emotional appeal is for the black community to support Sanders “to get the truth out.”