Now is the time that Republican presidential candidates, vying to be the "Romney alternative" in South Carolina, could take their cues from South Carolina's history book.

Play dirty.

Boarding a plane to Columbia on Wednesday, GOP front-runner Mitt Romney indicated that he knows what is coming, saying he is ready to defend himself from the "underbelly" of politics in a state known for bare-knuckled tactics.

"Politics ain't bean bags, and I know it's going to get tough," Romney said. "But I know that is sometimes part of the underbelly of politics."

In South Carolina -- with its tradition of whisper campaigns, automated phone calls that no one takes credit for and possibly illegal efforts to sway voters -- politics is a blood sport, supported by a cottage-industry of political strategists.

Traditionally, South Carolina is where the gloves come off. Candidates have slugged it out in the two early-voting states, Iowa and New Hampshire, and some are seething mad at the others.

So will South Carolina live up to its "bad boy" national reputation and play dirty?

Opinions are split.

"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 candidates. "I expect it to get bare knuckles here."

Marchant knows. He perhaps is most best-known for his 2010 statement that he had sex with then-gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley. Marchant offered no proof, and Haley, a married mother of two, denied the claim and won the election.

Others doubt the primary will get 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, an S.C. political consultant who was working for Michele Bachmann of Minnesota until she bowed out of the race after a poor showing in Iowa.

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Donehue said super political action committees have become the new way to play rough.

There are likely to be plenty more negative ads, predicted Richard Quinn, a longtime S.C. Republican consultant now working for candidate Jon Huntsman.

Quinn points to the anti-New Gingrich ads run by the super PAC supporting Romney before the Iowa caucuses as proof that negative ads work. "Gingrich was ahead in Iowa according to the polling. But not after those ads. Those attack ads were probably just as relentless and the same level of intensity as the one run against us in 2000."

Quinn is referring to perhaps South Carolina's most notorious example of dirty politics.

In 2000, a whisper campaign led many S.C. voters to wrongly think GOP presidential contender John McCain, who Quinn worked for, had fathered an African-American child and his wife was a drug addict.

McCain got the last laugh eight years later, winning the 2008 S.C. GOP primary and going on to capture the Republican nomination.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.