Experts worry deep reading becoming a thing of the past

The Republican presidential candidates, and their political action committees filled with secret donors, have spent $11.3 million on South Carolina television ads, an unprecedented amount for the GOP primary.

Seventy-five percent of the money was spent to buy advertising this week and next. That means, in the Columbia market alone, average viewers are likely to see a political ad 182 times by the time they cast their votes next Saturday.

"That's probably the most television that's ever been bought, particularly in this condensed period," said Warren Tompkins, a veteran political consultant who has worked in every S.C. Republican presidential primary and, this year, is advising Republican front-runner Mitt Romney.

"I didn't know you could buy that much TV, to be honest with you."

The ad buys have been relentless. Newt Gingrich has attempted, unsuccessfully, to buy a half-hour time block from at least three Midlands TV stations to air a documentary portraying Romney as a greedy, job-killing businessman.

Meanwhile, Citizens for a Working America, a super-PAC that once supported the now-defunct candidacy of Michele Bachmann, has switched sides and bought $264,244 worth of ads for Romney, who, even without Citizens' help, has outspent every other candidate in South Carolina.

Even comedian and former Charlestonian Stephen Colbert is throwing money around.

The Comedy Central host, who Thursday declared his intention to form an exploratory committee to become "president of the United States of South Carolina," has purchased $7,600 worth of ads in Charleston through his super PAC, "Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow."

Fueling all of this spending is the rise of super-PACs -- independent, private groups that can raise unlimited amounts of money without disclosing who their donors are until after the primary. In South Carolina, super-PACs have accounted for 69 percent of all TV ad spending.

Super-PACs now have "the ability ... to do the dirty work. Campaigns are able to rise above it and not have to put their names on stuff," said Scott Farmer, a South Carolina Republican political strategist. "They have completely rewritten the rule book this (election) cycle."

South Carolina, with its rough-and-rowdy reputation, has helped define Republican presidential politics for 30 years. But so much TV money pouring into the state raises the question: Can South Carolina be bought?

Consider Romney, who was stuck in second place during the fall in S.C. polls and seemed unable to break through. Then Romney and his super-PAC flooded the state with $2.4 million in TV ads this month. Romney now leads in every poll.

Gingrich and his super-PAC have spent $2 million in South Carolina -- 61 percent of his spending nationwide. After leading in South Carolina before the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich slipped to third place, trailing Romney and Rick Santorum. Now, after running ads attacking Romney as a greedy, job-killing businessman, Gingrich has risen to second place in the polls, trailing only Romney.

Rick Perry and his affiliated political action committees have spent $2.5 million in South Carolina, second only to Romney.