One of the odder moments in Monday's Republican presidential debate came when the candidates debated if they were doing enough to rein in independent political action committees working on their behalf.
These shadowy groups -- which can raise millions more dollars and report their donors at a later date than candidates can -- have played an outsized role in the primary process so far -- from Iowa on.
"Super PACs have been the story of the first three events," said Neal Thigpen, a former political science professor with Francis Marion University and a longtime observer of South Carolina politics.
"You've always seen negative ads, but the I think the
magnitude and number is much greater," he added. "Certainly in a presidential preference primary campaign, I don't ever remember this many."
South Carolina has a reputation for dirty politics, but the dirtiest politics this time around might not stem from hardened operatives but from the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a recent ruling paved the way for the so-called Super PACs.
And any South Carolina voter watching the football playoffs or other television shows has had a hard time escaping the avalanche of attacks and counterattacks.
On Monday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich mocked former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for his claims that he has no influence over a Super PAC that ran an ad implying Gingrich supported abortion.
"(It) makes you wonder how much influence he would have if he were president," Gingrich said.
Romney replied he has called for any inaccuracies from Super PAC ads removed from the air, but added, "Now I can't call these people and direct them to do that because that would violate federal law. Is that correct?" Gingrich replied, "Absolutely."
Karen Kedrowski, chairwoman of Winthrop University's political science department, called it "a great argument.
"They really wanted to have it both ways. No wonder the poor voters are confused."
Romney said he would like to see Super PACs disappear and people able to donate what they want directly to candidates' campaigns "and campaigns could run their own ads and take responsibility for them."
The Super PAC reality has triggered a national debate. Comedian Stephen Colbert has established his own Super PAC to use humor to highlight the new political reality.
The ruling opened the doors for corporate donations, but on Tuesday, Trillium Asset Management, LLC and Green Century Capital Management asked three companies to stop making such donations --a call that coincided with a similar campaign by Common Cause and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
In South Carolina, presidential candidates and Super PACs have spent more than $11 million on television ads -- more than ever before. The Super PACs, whose ads often do the more negative, dirty work, have done almost two thirds of it.
The Columbia and Myrtle Beach TV markets have been most saturated, followed by Greenville-Spartanburg and Charleston markets.
Thigpen said he's not sure how much all the ads are moving the political needle. "They probably cancel one another out," he said, "There are so darned many of them."
Kedrowski said the barrage not only has brought the negativity out of the closet, but it also means future presidential candidates will need more money than ever.
"This charade can do nothing but increase public cynicism about the American political system," she said, "and it's amazing to think that public cynicism can be increased because voters are already so cynical."
But the ads often work, even if they make voters cynical or uncomfortable. "Sometimes they can drive down participation, not always," Thigpen said. "They're kind of like train wrecks. People don't like them but they watch them anyway."
Newt Gingrich: Christ Central Community Center, Winnsboro, 9 a.m.; South Carolina Statehouse, Columbia, 11:30 a.m.; Bobby's BBQ, Warrenville, 1:30 p.m.; Mutt's BBQ, Easley, 4:30 p.m.; Hilton Hotel, 45 W. Orchard Park Drive, Greenville, 7 p.m.
Rick Santorum: The Beacon Drive-in, Spartanburg, 10:45 a.m.; Capitol Theatre, Laurens, 12:45 p.m.; Summit Point Conference Center, Spartanburg, 5 p.m.; Hilton Hotel, 45 W. Orchard Park Drive, Greenville, 8 p.m.
Rick Perry: Wild Ace Pizza, Greer, 11:30 a.m.; Southern Thymes, Greer, 12:30 p.m.; 35 Brendan Way, Greenville, 5 p.m.; Hilton Hotel, 45 W. Orchard Park Drive, Greenville, 8 p.m.
Mitt Romney: Wofford College, Spartanburg, 11:10 a.m.; Winthrop University, Rock Hill, 3:15 p.m.; Seven Oaks Park, Irmo, 7:15 p.m.
Ron Paul: Stern Center Garden, College of Charleston, 11 p.m.
Santorum: Marion Square, Charleston, 12:45 p.m.
Romney: 874 Orleans Road, Charleston, 10:10 a.m.
Gingrich: Magnolia Hall, Bluffton, 9 a.m.; 1014 Bay St., Beaufort, 10:45 a.m.; 2808 Greenpond Highway, Walterboro, 1 p.m.
Debate: All five GOP candidates are expected to participate in CNN's and the Southern Republican Leadership Conference's presidential debate airing at 8 p.m. from the North Charleston Coliseum.