By Niall Stanage - 02/17/16 06:00 AM EST
Ted CruzTed CruzTrump steps up campaign spending in final stretch McMullin tops new poll of Utah voters Cruz: Voter fraud a challenge MORE’s support appears to have plateaued in South Carolina, putting him at risk of finishing a distant second to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: Clinton up 12 on Trump in Virginia Poll: Clinton, Trump deadlocked in Georgia ‘Rigged’ elections are no joking matter MORE in Saturday’s GOP primary.
Cruz was once seen by some as the favorite in the state, a conservative stronghold that has a history of picking the eventual Republican presidential nominee. But observers say the Texas senator has lost some of the moral high ground after controversies about his campaign tactics that have been stoked by rival candidates and their allies.
The central issue is whether Cruz’s campaign fueled rumors on the night of the Iowa caucuses that Carson was about to drop out.
Another furor broke out over the weekend, when at least one South Carolina TV station refused to air an ad from a group backing Cruz that attacked rival Marco RubioMarco RubioObama: Trump's rigged election talk 'not a joking matter' Obama: Trump and Putin have a 'bromance' Obama slams Rubio for Trump support MORE’s position on immigration.
Some Palmetto State insiders suggest the controversies may be especially damaging to a candidate like Cruz, who trades on an image of personal rectitude and religiosity.
“It undermines his somewhat holier-than-thou persona,” said Chip Felkel, a GOP strategist in South Carolina who is unaffiliated in the presidential race. “And it doesn’t gel with what you’re hearing about him” in his campaign messaging.
Another Republican operative in the South Carolina, David Raad, negatively compared Cruz’s general tone to that of “a tent preacher.”
Raad said that when it came to appealing to South Carolina’s strong evangelical community, “it’s more than just having the tone or the rhetoric. There are a number of pieces needed to make that connection. ... There are limits to what voters will tolerate.”
Raad is unaffiliated in the campaign, though his wife is working for Rubio.
Still, other observers point out that South Carolina has a long-established reputation for ruthless politics. The various issues around Cruz hardly seem outside the parameters of the state’s sensibilities, they say.
This, after all, is the state where John McCainJohn McCainHigh anxiety for GOP Trump: 'Very disappointed' GOP senator dropped support GOP senator: I'd consider Clinton Supreme Court pick MORE in 2000 faced false rumors, the source of which was never traced, that he had fathered a black child out of wedlock. The issue of Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith was raised by equally mysterious sources in 2008.
Walter Whetsell, a Palmetto State GOP operative who worked for Rick Perry’s now-defunct campaign, said the history of mud-slinging stretches back even further.
“South Carolina has a long history of bare-knuckle political battles,” he said. “There have been fantastic historical events of duels and knife fights and dagger fights. So I don’t know that [the Cruz-related controversies] are as harmful or hurtful as it appears from the outside.”
Still, Whetsell said the Texas senator is a deeply polarizing figure.
“He has got a rabid following and a fairly rabid opposition,” even among Republicans, he said.
Cruz’s rivals are certainly trying to use his tactics against him. At Saturday’s fiery debate in Greenville, Trump referred to Cruz as “a nasty guy.”
The party front-runner went even further during an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday, calling Cruz “a very unstable person.”
“What he did to Ben Carson was a disgrace. That election in Iowa should be taken away from him,” Trump said.
Rubio has got in on the act, accusing Cruz of dishonesty both during the debate and in campaign materials. On Monday, Rubio spokesman Joe Pounder said that Cruz “makes charges against all his opponents that he knows are outright lies.”
Those allegations have been met with equal force by the Cruz campaign.
Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler told The Hill that when Trump has his record or past statements pointed out, “he doesn’t want to deal with it. He just says ‘Liar.’ ”
“I can forgive Donald Trump because he doesn’t know what he believes,” Tyler continued. “I don’t have the same impression of Marco Rubio, because he knows what he believes, but he has to hide what he believes.”
“It is remarkable — sad, really — for someone like Sen. Rubio to devolve into name-calling.”
Tyler said he was not predicting a Cruz victory in the Palmetto State, where Trump has a lead of around 18 points, according to most polls. But he did say, “We’ll do fine,” a confidence based in part in a strong ground game. According to Tyler, Cruz volunteers are averaging 10,000 door knocks and 20,000 phone calls per day in the state.
Dave Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University who has also worked as a GOP operative in South Carolina, noted that Cruz’s campaign had contacted his home five times in recent days, compared to no contact at all from the Trump organization.
“I am sensing a kind of an Iowa thing about the Cruz people,” Woodard said, alluding to the way the Texas senator outperformed his poll ratings on his way to winning the Hawkeye State.
Yet, at the same time, Woodard noted he was sensing no great wind at Cruz’s back.
“It’s been pretty standard. It hasn’t diminished, but it hasn’t grown either,” he said, regarding anecdotal evidence of the senator’s support.
Felkel put it a little more harshly.
“He’s worked hard, but he’s probably even more polarizing to people than Trump, if you can be that,” he said of Cruz. “Maybe he’ll turn out what he’s got. But I’m not sure what he’s got is enough.”