Is Thompson Surging?

Columbia, S.C.–With most polls showing him running fourth among South Carolina Republicans in the presidential primary tomorrow, supporters of Fred Thompson insisted to me this morning that their man was “surging” and would do “well”–although they would not predict a first or second place finish.

Speaking on background, top operatives of the Thompson campaign told me that there was last-minute momnetum for the Tennessean. “Team Thompson” spoke to me shortly after State Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom endorsed the former senator and TV actor at the State Capitol this morning.

“The money is coming in and continues to come in,” said one top Palmetto State Thompson operative, adding that Thompson had also picked up the endorsement of South Carolina Citizens for Life. In addition, Rep. Steve King (R.-Iowa), one of the premier House opponents of illegal immigration, arrived in Columbia this morning to campaign for Thompson.

The same Thompson operative said his candidate is pounding on three themes–sound fiscal policy, his “100% pro-life position,” and his tough stand on illegal immigration–“Fred’s the lone candidate in this primary who hasn’t had to flip around on this issue,” his campaigner told me.

“Team Thompson” also took some shots at the candidate they feel is the biggest roadblock to a surge and political resurrection of their man–Mike Huckabee. As one of the Thompson people told me, “The push polls that are coming from the Huckabee camp are beyond the pale.” He was specifically referring to a Virginia-based group, Common Sense, that has endorsed Huckabee and, according to published reports, is responsible for phone calls to likely primary voters asking whether they would vote for Thompson if they knew he is for partial birth abortion or for same-sex marriage. Thompson, of course, has been solidly against both.

So the fate of Fred Thompson as a presidential candidate appears in the hands of South Carolina Republicans, and very soon, they will determine whether or not he meets his own standard and “does well.”


Arriving in the capital city of South Carolina 36 hours before its Republican Presidential primary, I immediately get a flavor of the national attention focused on the GOP sweepstakes on Saturday, January 19 — not to mention the smell of political battle that is inarguably in the cold air here.

Checking into the Clarion Town House near the State Capitol, I find the entrance to the hotel plastered with “Fred 08” signs. “Fred,” of course, is Fred Thompson, who is making his do-or-die stand here. Thompson campaign operative Josh Daniels rides down the elevator with me, graciously acknowledges HUMAN EVENTS’ endorsement of his candidate, and admonishes me to “make sure you come by our headquarters. We’re just a block away.”

Dining at the celebrated Diane’s on Devine Restaurant with Kay Rich, an old friend and alumni of the Administration of the late Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell, we are not even presented with the menu before the conversation turns to the primary and likely winner. Kay reminds me that, although there is no party registration in South Carolina, if a voter decides to participate in the GOP balloting January 19, he or she cannot vote in the Democratic primary January 26 — which makes this closer to a “closed primary” than Michigan or New Hampshire was.

As we leave the restaurant, I encounter Kelly O’Donnell, my former colleague in the White House Press Corps, and her NBC-TV crew of Mario and Kerry. Earlier in the day, they covered John McCain at an event with a large and enthusiastic crowd. McCain, the NBC team says, took a question about his years-ago call for taking down the Confederate flag from atop the State Capitol and doesn’t flinch in re-stating his views that the flag should have come down (It had several years ago).

Back at my hotel, I check in with colleague Jamie Coomarasamy of the BBC, who has just returned from an event with Mike Huckabee and his star campaigner Chuck Norris in Clemson. “The ‘Huck and Chuck Show’ was a big hit with the student audience,” Jamie says, “and they’ve got another chap on the stump with them — a wrestler [professional wrestling champion Ric Flair].” Huckabee was also endorsed yesterday by Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer.

This is what South Carolina is all about: propelling one candidate to the front of the race, very possibly eliminating another. With less than one day to go before the balloting, the talk among friends and colleagues about McCain and Huckabee is underscored in the latest polling data: a Mason-Dixon poll among likely primary voters shows McCain leading Huckabee by a margin of 27% to 25%, and the latest Rasmussen poll shows the two of them tied with 24% each. Mitt Romney and Thompson are in the teens in both polls and all other GOP candidates are in single digits. While conventional wisdom holds that Thompson must either win here or place a very strong second to stay alive politically, it is not difficult to picture the former Tennessee senator coming in a strong third and still jumpstarting his campaign. Days after his triumphant performance in Michigan, Romney in effect conceded South Carolina yesterday, telling USA Today that McCain has the state “pretty well wrapped up” and that he would instead focus on the GOP caucuses in Nevada (which will actually have more delegates than South Carolina). To many Romney-watchers, this apparent surrender is disappointing, considering the former Massachusetts governor has been endorsed by Sen. Jim DeMint and fundamentalist heir Bob Jones, III of Greenville. Romney had also recruited Warren Tompkins, longtime political quarterback for the late Gov. Campbell, to oversee his primary campaign here.

By all political yardsticks, McCain should win on Saturday. Led by Sen. Lindsay Graham, most of the Arizona senator’s 2000 campaigners are back with him (although, curiously, Gov. Mark Sanford is neutral this year rather than fervently behind McCain, as he was eight years ago). Where McCain either ignored or responded too late to attacks he considered under-handed and personal in 2000, a budding “Vietnam Veterans Against McCain” that has sent attack mailings out drew sharp and repeated denunciation from Orson Swindle, the candidate’s onetime cellmate in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton.” In a state with 400,000 veterans, McCain’s background as naval aviator and Vietnam POW packs a powerful wallop.

But this is also a state where an estimated 53% of likely GOP voters are white evangelical Christians. That could work for Huckabee, as it did in Iowa (where an estimated 40% of Republican caucus-goers were evangelical Christians and Huckabee was a runaway winner). As in Michigan, however, Huckabee plays the blue-collar card, declaring that the economy doesn’t work well for people who live from “paycheck to paycheck.”

Since it was first held back in 1980, the South Carolina primary has always been a pivotal contest and often a king-making event in the Republican presidential sweepstakes. It was here that Ronald Reagan polished off John Connally in 1980 and began having a downhill race to the nomination; George H.W. Bush essentially finished rivals Bob Dole and Pat Robertson here in 1988 and Dole began to emerge as the Republican nominee after defeating Pat Buchanan here in ’96. And, of course, George W. Bush all but put out the flame of McCain’s first presidential bid in their bitter contest here seven years ago –something the Arizonan still refers to as he campaigns in ’08.

On Saturday, McCain will either become the first of the ’08 hopefuls to win more than one major contest or Huckabee will snatch that prize and gain some momentum for Florida January 29. Romney will almost surely be ahead in the hard count of actual delegates after Nevada’s same day contest (South Carolina has only 24 delegates, the national party stripping the state of 23 delegates for scheduling its primary before Super Tuesday February 5). Fred Thompson’s fate is unknown.

Arrving back at my hotel, I drop in its Carolina’s Pub. As Eric the bartender pours me a Diet Coke, I asked whether he will participate in the Republican primary Saturday or the Democratic contest the following week.

“I haven’t decided yet,” he replies. Does he have a favorite candidate? “I’m not at liberty to say,” replies Eric, “A lot of politicians come in here.”


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