After the last Republican debate, the press was giddy with talk of negativity. Smackdown! The claws come out! GOP candidates duke it out! You would have thought Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney doffed their shirts and engaged in a good old-fashioned bare-knuckle brawl, with teeth flying and blood dripping from swollen fists.
But in truth, it was nothing more than a little mild-mannered back-and-forth about their respective records on immigration (and the citizenship status of the people mowing Romney's lawn). It was nothing - these are Republicans we're talking about. This is the party of Willie Horton, of Karl Rove spreading rumors that his client's opponent was a pedophile, of allies of George W. Bush telling South Carolinians that John McCain fathered an illegitimate black baby, of the Swift Boat Veterans. They haven't even begun to get mean.
Speaking of South Carolina, Romney did something extremely smart in the early days of his campaign: he looked around at the collection of dirty tricksters in the Palmetto State, the kind whose specialty is eviscerating their opponents, and hired as many of them as he could. These are operatives who believe what Rove believes, and what Lee Atwater believed before him: that it isn't enough to beat your opponent, you have to destroy him, so that he'll never be able to show his face in public again. We can be generous and assume it wasn't so much Romney's own thirst for dirty tricks, but his desire to avoid having them played on him, that led him to these guys. But don't be surprised when South Carolina Republicans start getting fliers in their mailboxes with photos of Mr. Tough Guy Giuliani in a dress.