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'Dirty Tricks' in South Carolina: Pro-Cruz Robocall Hits Trump Over Confederate Flag

Voting booths opened for South Carolina's Republican primary after a week full of political chicanery and questionable attempts to sway voters.
Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Voting booths in South Carolina only opened a couple hours ago for the state's Republican primary, but the past week has been full of political chicanery and questionable attempts to sway voters in the contest.

One of the most recent examples of these tricks is an automated phone call that is going out to 180,000 households from a pro-Ted Cruz super PAC criticizing Donald Trump's support for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol.

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"Respect whatever you have to respect. Put it in a museum, let it go," the message starts off, which an announcer explains is a recording of Trump referring to the flag.

"That's Donald Trump supporting Nikki Haley removing the battle flag from the Confederate memorial in Columbia," the male voice continues. "People like Donald Trump are always butting their noses into other people's business, but Trump talks about our flag like it's a social disease."

The group responsible for the call, Courageous Conservatives, is an outside organization "committed to the election of Ted Cruz as President," according to its website, and is not affiliated with the campaign. A spokesperson for the Cruz campaign said the call was not coming from the campaign, but declined to comment further.

Related: Super PAC-Funded Jeb Bush Says There's Too Much Anonymous Money in Politics

The purpose of the call, which is also accompanied by a radio advertisement of the same recording, is to get Trump supporters to move over to support Cruz instead, a spokesperson for the group, Rick Shaftan, told VICE News.

"We wanted everyone to know what Trump feels about the flag," Shaftan said. "He talks about it like it's yesterday's garbage."

'Over the last 10 days, the Cruz campaign has lied, smeared, fabricated and even photoshopped.'

Many of those who opposed Governor Haley's decision to remove the Confederate flag from the State House last summer after a mass shooting by a white supremacist at a black church, are also supporting Trump in the primary. According to a survey by the left-leaning Public Policy Institute, 70 percent of likely Trump voters think that the Confederate flag should still be flying above the State House.

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The call is the latest in the increasingly nasty battle between Trump and Cruz, who are polling in first and second place in the state, respectively. The fight is being waged over the airwaves in South Carolina in the final hours leading up to the primary. On Tuesday, Trump sent Cruz a cease-and-desist letter demanding the campaign to take down a television ad attacking Trump's conservative credentials and painting him as pro-choice.

The Cruz campaign is also going after Senator Marco Rubio, who is in third place in the polls. On Thursday, the Cruz campaign created a website to exclusively highlight Rubio's dealmaking with President Barack Obama, and featured a photoshopped image that purportedly showed Rubio shaking hands with the president over an immigration deal.

Related: The Salacious Ammo Even Donald Trump Won't Use in a Fight Against Hillary Clinton

The Rubio campaign went ballistic. "This is how phony and deceitful the Cruz campaign has become," Rubio's campaign advisor Todd Harris told reporters on Thursday, before the campaign sent out an email out to supporters warning them to be aware of any "dirty tricks" from Cruz's side.

"Over the last 10 days, the Cruz campaign has lied, smeared, fabricated and even photoshopped," said Rubio's spokesperson Alex Conant in the email. "We fear the worst dirty tricks are yet to come. We strongly urge all South Carolina Republicans to beware of suspicious news reports, emails and social media posts during tomorrow's voting."

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Members of the super PAC American Bridge showed up to a Rubio event dressed as robots, making fun of the candidtate's tendency to repeat the same talking points. (Photo by Olivia Becker/VICE News)

The Charleston Post and Courier created an anonymous site they're calling the "Whisper Campaign" for South Carolinians to submit tips of any questionable mailers or advertisements they've seen. So far the site has received 44 submissions, about half of which have been phone calls. The Cruz campaign has been behind most of the submissions that the Post and Courier was able to link to a specific campaign.

But the dirty tricks can also get more creative than just robocalls and TV attack ads. On Friday, two members from the progressive super PAC American Bridge showed up to a Rubio event in Columbia dressed as robots. The stunt, which the group had also done at various Rubio events in New Hampshire, was intended to make fun of Rubio's tendency to repeat the same canned talking points over and over again in his speeches.

Related: Ted Cruz's Biggest Challenge: To Know Him Is to Hate Him

One of the robots, American Bridge's communications director Ben Ray, said that Rubio's staff denied them entry to the event after they made it into the hotel lobby where it was being held.

Asked if this qualified as a "dirty trick," Ray laughed and shrugged. If it does, he said, "South Carolina has revised its standards down quite a bit."

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928

Watch the VICE News documentary America's Election 2016: Trump Carolina: