Traveling through snowy South Carolina with Fred Thompson, I’m struck by the sense that finally, the man has arrived. The candidate so many conservatives were excited by early in 2007 is finally walking the land.
The Fred Thompson in South Carolina this week is the one America saw knock into Mike Huckabee as a pro-life liberal with “blame America first” beliefs whose economic policies would destroy the economy. And the crowds love it.
Though barely mentioned in the national media, Senator Fred Thompson has been on a barn storming tour crisscrossing South Carolina for more than a week. In a unique approach, he is not just going to major media markets, but to rural areas of South Carolina. On my first day on the trail with Senator Thompson, he drew a crowd of 180 people to a small Mennonite restaurant in Abbeville, South Carolina — population 26,000 with a median income of $15,370. He capped off the day at the Orangeburg-Calhoun County Technical College in Orangeburg, South Carolina with over 200 people braving a rare snow shower to hear him. The day before I joined him on the campaign trail, Senator Thompson’s campaign saw large capacity auditoriums overflowing with people standing outside the buildings waiting to get in.
The crowds are enthusiastic and relieved. Finally, the Fred Thompson they hoped for is on the campaign trail. “Saying the Reagan Coalition is dead is like saying the Constitution is dead,” Thompson began one speech, taking on Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. “The Reagan Coalition was never about the man. It was and is about the principles and values we apply to issues.” He continued, “The issues may change, but the principles do not.” The crowd roared its enthusiasm.
Later in the day, an elderly gentleman asked Senator Thompson about immigration. Senator Thompson responded, “Securing the border is popular for a lot of candidates to talk about these days. They’ve changed their positions. I embrace change, but some of these guys are wearing out the road to Damascus.” The crowd ate it up. Thompson pointed out that he, unlike the other candidates, has been consistently supportive of increased border security and consistently opposed to lax enforcement.
It’s refreshing to hear Senator Thompson. He is not the candidate the media likes. He gives good sound bites, but he is plodding, methodical, and issue oriented. Senator Thompson’s is not a personality driven campaign. It is about issues, issues, issues. And it is conservative to the core. On the campaign trail, it seems Thompson has never met an issue he was ready to solve based on what he perceives as real conservative principles. Chief among them is that if government gets involved, it will probably make the situation worse. There is no pandering. John McCain may give straight talk, but Thompson gives no bull.
Since Mitt Romney’s call for a government plan to save the automotive industry, Senator Thompson has been on a tear blasting him as the candidate who tailors his message to whichever group he is talking to. Taking on Mike Huckabee, Senator Thompson points out that he likes Mike Huckabee, but his policies and agenda are full of empty rhetoric and policies anathema to the entrepreneurial spirit in the United States. He points out that he and John McCain are friends, but he has “strong disagreements” with John McCain on issues such as immigration and taxes.
Polling in South Carolina shows Fred Thompson gaining momentum in the state. The campaign staff has noticed the crowds growing since Fred Thompson took on Mike Huckabee in the Fox News Debate. The message is clear — Thompson is the real conservative in the race.
There is an opening for Thompson. Mitt Romney has written off South Carolina, ceding the field to John McCain. Mike Huckabee is losing ground as voters learn more about his liberal record. Conservative rallying has begun to impact John McCain. There is a palpable sense in the crowds and among South Carolina reporters that the momentum is with Fred Thompson. And so the campaign soldiers on.
In Orangeburg, South Carolina, Fred Thompson fired up the crowds with humor and substance. After a long day of talking, he coughed and took a sip of water. “Yeah, I’m choked up,” Thompson said, “but I’m not getting emotional.” The crowd roared. Then Thompson went into his hallmark campaign routine — questions from the crowd. Every event ends that way.
An attendee asked Thompson what he would do about Israel and the Palestinians. While complementary of the President, Thompson said, “Every President has thought he could solve the problem on the force of his personality, but he can’t.” He continued, “There are a lot of things that are possible in that situation, but one non-negotiable — the right of Israel to exist.” More applause. Another attendee asked about immigration. “A nation that cannot control its borders ceases to be a sovereign nation,” Thompson responded. The crowd drowned him out with applause. Then Thompson does what so many of the other candidates fail to do. He talks specifics and policies, mixed with humor and the recognition that what he is doing is rather unique.
It is a unique campaign. Like John McCain, who was written off for dead last June, Fred Thompson has begun a comeback. He has come back as the candidate everyone wanted to get in the race. In the process, he is owning the crowd.