John Gizzi at the Iowa Caucuses

Will Thompson’s Conservatism "Flame On" in Iowa — Or Does He Take Curtain Call in Caucuses?

National political pundits and "talking heads" began speculating today that a dismal showing in the Iowa Republican caucuses tomorrow evening would spell the end of Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign. There were also some signs that the former Tennessee senator and television actor might just do better-than-expected — perhaps enough to keep him going until the January 19 South Carolina primary, where polls show Thompson running strong.

"I like Fred Thompson better than anyone else in the race," Administrative Law Judge Mark Wampler, a Republican precinct committeeman who is organizing the presidential caucus in Alleman, Iowa, told me. "I look around at the other Republicans and Huckabee and Romney both have big gaps in their conservatism. Fred Thompson is the only consistent conservative in the race — and that’s going to help him."

What attracted Wampler and other traditional Hawkeye State conservatives to the Tennessean has been, in Wampler’s words, "the fact that he worked so closely to make John Roberts chief justice. Judicial nominations are very important to conservatives in the Republican Party here — very much so if working with Roberts indicates the kind of judges Thompson would appoint as President, then I’m for him — strongly."

Wampler’s almost uniquely sunny analysis of Thompson’s chances in the Iowa caucuses comes as a just-completed Zogby Poll today shows Mike Huckabee edging Mitt Romney 28% to 26% among likely caucus goers, and Thompson actually tied with John McCain for third with 12% each. Clearly coming in third or even being tied for third place would breath fresh life into the Thompson candidacy.

Luntz Weighs In On Thompson

Although veteran pollster Frank Luntz made it clear he is neutral in the Republican sweepstakes and thinks "there is no way to tell who’s going to win Iowa," he did agree that the story that just might come out of the caucuses Thursday is that "Fred Thompson might just do better than anyone expects and therefore, there is no winner, no conclusion, and no closure from Iowa."

Luntz, whose past clients include Ross Perot in his independent bid for President in 1992 and Newt Gingrich in the 1994 elections that saw Republicans win both Houses of Congress, spoke to me at the media headquarters in the downtown Des Moines convention center.

In making it clear he has no horse in the ’08 field, Luntz also disparaged various other polls that contradict one another, with one showing Huckabee in the lead and another showing Romney on top. In his words, "When it’s four days out from the caucus and this close, you don’t even ask who you think is going to win. There’s no way to tell. Okay, I’ll predict this to you: on Thursday night, someone in the polling business will look pretty dreadful when the results come in. If one has one candidate up by nine, and another has another candidate up by seven, someone’s got to come out looking bad!"

Huckabee, Romney Teams Each Predict Iowa Caucus Win

With less than 24 hours to go before the Republican Presidential caucuses, with different polls showing either Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee in the lead, top political operatives for each of the front-running candidates confidently predicted to me that their man would win.

"I really feel Mitt’s going to win tomorrow night," Connie Schmett, political director for Romney’s campaign in Polk County (Des Moines), maintained. She cited the former Massachusetts governor’s "reputation as a businessman, a fixer who can heal the country" as something that is resonating with likely GOP caucus-goers. Schmett spoke to me after spending part of the morning with Romney’s surrogate speakers, including his wife Ann, brother Scott, and former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent.

But Schmett — who with husband Kim is a veteran of decades in the Hawkeye State political trenches — also cited what she called "Mitt’s superior organization" as a factor in procedure likely to attract less than 10% of registered Republicans. Along with "paid and volunteer coordinators in all 99 counties," Schmett cited Romney’s particular appeal among evangelical conservatives-by far the largest group of participants in the caucuses. She noted that members of the Iowa Christian Alliance, a spin-off of the old Christian Coalition that was a force in the 1996 and 2000 Iowa caucuses, are in the Romney camp — notably two key Alliance leaders, Joe Earle and Keith Hunter.

The strong Romney effort at cultivating the Alliance and leaders such as Earle and Hunter was clearly a response to former Baptist minister Huckabee’s reputation as a strong social conservative and favorite of the state’s large home school movement.

After speaking with Schmett at the Country Inn in Western Des Moines, it was then downtown for me and a visit to Huckabee’s bustling storefront headquarters.

"Okay — you said you wanted five minutes with me — I’ll hold you to it!" said Eric Woolson, Huckabee’s state campaign manager and onetime communications director to former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, as phones rang incessantly and fellow reporters dropped in.

"People here are tired of the non-stop negative ads," Woolson told me, referring to Romney’s recent media broadsides on Huckabee’s record as governor of Arkansas that some polls show has cut his once formidable lead. "That’s why Gov. Huckabee has pulled ahead in the final ‘Iowa Poll’ [the Des Moines Register survey two days ago, which showed Huckabee leading Romney among likely caucus-goers by 32% to 26% statewide], and the ‘Iowa Poll’ has the best reputation for accuracy."

Woolson dismissed the controversy over Huckabee announcing he would not show the commercials crafted by national campaign chairman Ed Rollins that attacked Romney –and then giving reporters a viewing of the "attack ads." In his words, "He had the choice to run them or not. He’s criticized for not running them and then showing them to reporters. The bottom line is that the ads existed, but he didn’t show them. People I talked to said Gov. Huckabee made the right decision."

According to Woolson, Team Huckabee has 14 paid staffers in the state (including Woolson himself) and a "massive volunteer organization" in all of Iowa’s 99 counties. The strong emphasis on volunteers, he said, "is getting the caucuses back to what they used to be before the big money and high-paid consultants came in."

A Savage Opinion

As readers know, when I travel, I don’t just talk to pols and fellow pundits. My first "focus group" after arriving at the Des Moines International Airport was Joe Savage, who owns his own taxi.

Savage said he will "probably go to the Republican caucus" in his Des Moines hometown and "is leaning to Mitt Romney. I like his business background and belief in lower taxes and less government." But Savage — who voted twice for George W. Bush and for Bill Clinton in 1996 — indicated he was only "leaning" and could change.

As for Huckabee, Savage said "I was a bit put off by his decision to go on Jay Leno’s ‘Tonight Show’ on the night before the caucuses. It was like saying he had something more important to do than be with us."