The crush of campaign ad spending in South Carolina has swollen to more than $12 million so far, with candidates and independent groups paying top dollar to elbow for room in the state's crucial advertising marketplace.
The ads by the Republican hopefuls and affiliated groups known as super PACs also have been overwhelmingly negative in tone, not just toward President Barack Obama, whom they hope to topple in November, but toward one other as well.
Rick Santorum warns that Mitt Romney's views mirror Obama's. A pro-Romney group paints Newt Gingrich as an ethically compromised Washington insider. Ron Paul says his GOP opponents are "whimpering like little shih tzus."
All told, presidential campaign ads have run approximately 25,000 times across South Carolina media markets, according to information provided to The Associated Press.
Presidential campaign ads came late to South Carolina, as they did to Iowa before that state's first-in-the-nation caucuses. But the trickle quickly became a flood.
The onslaught left TV stations across the state struggling to keep up with the demand for air time.
"Early this month, I was thinking, `Wow, I wonder if we're going to get any political ads?' But after New Hampshire, it became substantial _ two to three times heavier than we expected," said Chris Bailey, general manager of WOLO, the ABC affiliate in Columbia.
"It's been crazy," said Scott Sanders, general manager of WIO, Columbia's NBC affiliate. "You've really seen about four months of advertising in past presidential campaigns condensed into two weeks."
With so much competition for ad time, stations have struggled to find enough slots in their schedules. By law, stations are required to give federal candidates rock-bottom advertising rates and, if necessary, bump commercial advertisers vying for time. But super PACs are required to pay the higher retail ad rate, and candidates _ so eager for advantage _ are doing so as well.
The $12 million figure this time is slightly less than the $13.5 million spent on broadcast TV advertising in South Carolina in 2008, according to an analysis by Kantar Media Group/CMAG, which tracks campaign ad spending.
But that year, both Democrats and Republicans had heavily contested primaries in the state. Democratic campaigns spent $6.6 million on ads in South Carolina in 2008, Kantar/CMAG said, while Republicans spent $6.9 million.
The intensity of the ad barrage reflects the do-or-die state of the Republican race leading up to South Carolina's primary Saturday as well as the emergence of super PACs.
Super PACs _ independent groups that can raise and spend unlimited money to advocate for a candidate _ were unleashed in 2010 after a landmark Supreme Court ruling and are facing their first test in presidential politics. Each of the GOP candidates has at least one super PAC running ads on his behalf, helping to save the candidates millions in advertising costs.
Romney, whose strong showing in Iowa and big win in New Hampshire has made him the prohibitive front-runner, is trying to build enough support _ and erase enough doubts among conservatives about his record _ to pull out a win in South Carolina, where he placed fourth in 2008. His campaign has spent nearly $1.8 million on ads in the state.
Restore Our Future, a deep-pocketed super PAC backing the former Massachusetts governor, has done its part as well, spending $2 million to trash Gingrich and Santorum as the two have battled to be Romney's chief conservative antagonist.
With polls showing Gingrich surging in the state, Restore Our Future's ads have stopped mentioning Santorum and are focusing only on Gingrich, the former House speaker.
Viewers in most regions of the state were watching an average of about six commercials a day paid for by Romney's campaign and Restore Our Future.
Gingrich, for his part, has spent about $491,000 on ads, his latest showing footage from his widely praised debate performance Monday night.
Gingrich's affiliated super PAC, Winning Our Future, is doing the dirty work _ spending nearly $1.6 million on ads showing Romney's shifts in positions on issues like abortion and suggesting Obama would crush Romney in a debate. The group received a $5 million cash windfall from Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate and longtime Gingrich backer.
Santorum, whose cash-strapped campaign has only recently started running its own TV ads, has spent just over $1 million in South Carolina and is hitting Romney hard in a new ad.
"Why would we ever vote for someone who's just like Obama?" the ad asks, noting Romney's push for a health care plan in Massachusetts that became the basis for Obama's federal health care overhaul.
The Red White and Blue Fund, a super PAC supporting Santorum's candidacy, is spending about $785,000 in South Carolina on primarily positive ads. The group, funded largely by Wyoming billionaire Foster Freiss, all but saved the former Pennsylvania senator's campaign in Iowa _ running ads when Santorum could not afford to do so and helping him surge into a virtual tie with Romney there.
Ron Paul, who has spent relatively little time in South Carolina despite his strong second-place showing in New Hampshire, nonetheless has blanketed the airwaves with nearly $1.5 million in ads. His are almost entirely negative _ painting Romney as a "flip-flopper," Gingrich as a "serial hypocrite" and Santorum as a "counterfeit conservative."
The Santa Rita super PAC supporting the Texas congressman has spent another $326,000 running ads suggesting Paul would be the most electable candidate against Obama.
Rick Perry and an affiliated super PAC, Make Us Great Again, spent heavily in the state before the Texas governor quit the race Thursday and endorsed Gingrich. Perry's campaign spent nearly $580,000 on ads while Make Us Great Again dropped $1.8 million.