WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney's presidential campaign is running a drown-out robocall campaign in South Carolina in hopes of closing out the Republican primary in the Palmetto State.
Over the past week, the former Massachusetts Governor has placed far more calls than any of his fellow candidates. Shaun Dakin, the anti-robocall advocate who keeps the one of the most comprehensive databases of robocalls being made, estimated that Romney was making five robocalls in South Carolina for every one being made by the rest of the field combined -- though recent reports suggest Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is closing that gap.
Oftentimes, the calls are being leaked to the press for maximal impact. When Gov. Nikki Haley recorded one call, pitching Romney as the one candidate who was "not a creature of Washington" it was provided by the Romney campaign to several media outlets.
Occasionally, however, it is a stealth operation, and save for the work of reporters on the ground, it would be impossible to know the extent of what is transpiring.
"It is Romney far and away who's placing the most calls according to everyone I talked to," said Ben Szobody, a reporter at the Greenville News, who has done some of the best work in documenting the robocall effort.
Robocalls tend to be one of the least-effective methods in moving voters. But according to Dakin, the Romney campaign has begun applying new technologies to tactic, with calls featuring the former governor greeting the recipient by name before launching into the actual script.
"It is probably the most sophisticated robocall strategy they have used this cycle," said Dakin, who suspects that the campaign either had Romney record a number of common names or used audio technology to make it sound like his voice.
The robocall campaign has served multiple purposes. Romney has used robocalls to spread the word about campaign events, and he has also used them as a defense against attacks on his social-conservative credentials.
As compiled by Szobody, one call featured Mary Ann Glendon, an anti-abortion activist from Massachusetts, declaring that Romney has been "steadfast about protecting the unborn and defending our values" and "worked hard to protect the sanctity of life in liberal Massachusetts."
In another, Pat Neal, the former chairman of Florida's Faith and Freedom coalition, praises Romney for staring down "activist judges and hostile lawmakers" while not bending "on his commitments to the things we hold dear."
The robocall effort has also served a more provocative, attack-oriented function for the Romney campaign. And more often than not, the target's been former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
In one call there is a southern sounding gentleman, claiming to be a Romney volunteer, criticizing Santorum for joining "liberal senators in Washington" to stop right-to-work legislation. "That worries me," says the man, emphasizing the word worry.
In another one, another southern sounding gentleman named "David" relays his concern that Santorum "came to South Carolina in 2010 to criticize [Senator] Jim DeMint's work" to stop earmarks. "That's just not right," he says. "I'm not going to forget what Rick Santorum did to Jim DeMint."
The Romney campaign, which was not immediately available for comment, has even put up a call replaying Santorum's endorsement of Romney in 2008 -- much to the chagrin of current Santorum backers.
Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has also been a target of the robocall drown-out. In one Romney call, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) accuses the former House Speaker of deploying "dangerous anti-capitalist rhetoric used by the Democrats" in his attacks on Romney's private equity days.
"He is using talking points straight out of Barack Obama's playbook," McCain says. "But it is finally time we sent him a strong message: this behavior is unacceptable."
That McCain would be part of the effort seems particularly ironic. In the 2000 GOP primary, the Arizona Republican was on the receiving end of a vicious campaign in South Carolina suggesting, among other things, that he fathered a black child out of wedlock. But Dakin noted that there's a technical difference between then and now. "Those were not really robocalls. Those were push polls," he said, referring to calls disguised as polls that are really meant to spread a political message. "Obviously it is in the general category but slightly different."
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