South Carolina Blame Game

Huck’s Army Blames Thompson for Loss

Columbia, S.C.–Although their candidate lost a relatively tight primary race with John McCain (with Fred Thompson finishing a distant third) Mike Huckabee’s top lieutenants blame the former Tennessee senator for snatching from them a desperately-needed triumph in South Carolina.

“Fred Thompson took a chunk of the conservative base away from Mike,” former Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R.-Ark.) told me at the convention center here, where Huckabee had addressed supporters minutes before. Hutchinson, a close friend of Huckabee, said his onetime Senate colleague Thompson “chipped away just enough conservative votes” to deny the former Arkansas governor a primary considered pivotal to his campaign.

As for past Senate colleague McCain, Hutchinson said that, as in the other primary state he won (New Hampshire), McCain has still “yet to go head to head with a conservative.”

Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer, who endorsed Huckabee on the eve of the primary, also weighed in on Thompson. According to Bauer, Thompson’s remaining in the Palmetto State contest “made a difference–clearly” in terms of siphoning votes from the Arkansas man. Bauer cited the 3rd District, where he felt Huckabee had been doing well but was thwarted from finishing first because Thompson cut into his vote and had the backing of Rep. Gresham Barrett.

Standing beside Bauer was the Republican he defeated to win renomination as lieutenant governor last year: Mike Campbell, now state campaign chairman for Huckabee. The son of the late Gov. Carroll Campbell agreed with former rival Bauer that “Fred Thompson took a few conservative votes from Mike Huckabee,” but also pointed out that the campaign’s polls showed “McCain got a bump after winning New Hampshire [January 8th] and we never got completely back to the first-place position we had before.”

The Huckabee high command had clearly counted on a win in a state where evangelical Christians accounted for an estimated 53% of the Republican primary participants in 2000. Although he won a plurality among evangelical Christians, McCain did very well among the same group–many of them believing McCain’s strong background on national security trumped Huckabee’s cultural issue credentials. A Fox News poll showed that among those who considered themselves evangelical Christians, Huckabee defeated McCain by a margin of 41% to 27%. In Greenville, the home of Bob Jones University, the two top GOP candidates split the votes about evenly (in 2000, Bush demolished McCain in Greenville by a 20-point margin).

In addition, where McCain and Huckabee split voters who consider themselves Republicans with 30% each, voters who considered themselves independents gave the Arizona senator a handsome advantage (39% to 22%) over Huckabee, according to a Fox News poll.

Looking ahead, Huckabee goes into the Florida primary (January 29th) in which he must deal with a more secular electorate and larger and more costlier media markets. In conceding defeat to McCain, Huckabee pointed out to supporters that he felt the top two candidates in the primary ran a civil campaign. But in an obvious reference to Thompson, he added that “I would rather be where I am with honor than to have won by dishonor and attacking.”

Aftermath at Thompson Headquarters

It was not a pretty picture at Fred Thompson’s election night party. Following the former Tennessee senator’s remarks earlier in the evening and departure for his home state, the crowd at Russell Hall on the University of South Carolina campus grew listless and soon cleared out.

Dean Rice, a onetime Thompson Senate staffer who was his primary coordinator in the primary, told me he was coming out to thank the volunteers who came from as far away as Pensylvania and Washington State to help their hero.

Thompson, of course, was a distant third behind John McCain (33%) and Mike Huckabee (30%) with 16% of the vote. In thanking his supporters, the onetime star of TV’s “Law and Order” gave no hint as to whether he would stay on to fight or call it quits.

“He’s left for a while and hasn’t said what he is going to do next,” Nelson Warfield, who had produced some of the hard-hitting spots the Thompson campaign ran in the twilight of the primary race.

Randy Enwright, the Thompson campaign’s political director, also said he had no idea what Thompson would do next. Enwright, a past executive director of the Florida Republican Party with strong ties to cultural conservatives, had been expected to be a major player in a Thompson effort in the Sunshine State’s GOP primary January 29th.

Almost to a person, the young activists I met from other states–almost all of whom paid their own expenses–who had come here to turn out the vote for Thompson wanted their man to fight on. Laila Shipman of Rome, Georgia told me “I met a lot of good folks here, from Virginia, Minnesota, and elsewhere, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again to help a great man.” Judy Davidson of Chester County, Pennsylvania, the Thompson coordinator in the Pennsylvania said “We are all set to go, all organized. We’re even selling a new kind of pretzels known as ‘Fretzels’ on our website. You heard it here first–this is going to a brokered convention. Fred has to stay in.”

Did Romney Wound Thompson?

With Mike Huckabee’s campaign team blaming Fred Thompson for denying their man the conservative votes he needed to overtake John McCain, the Thompson team has begun to hint that their candidate’s third place finish (16%) might have been much higher had it not been for a last-minute major media buy by Mitt Romney–who placed fourth with 15%.

One high-placed Republican source who requested anonymity insisted to me this morning that, Mitt Romney’s virtual abandonment of South Carolina last week to focus on the Nevada caucuses (which he won handily) notwithstanding, Romney’s South Carolina operation nonetheless made a last-minute time purchase for television spots. The time buy, estimated at $300,000, blitzed the Aiken-area 3rd District, where Thompson had the backing of popular Rep. Gresham Barrett, on the even of the primary. According to my GOP source, “this made it difficult and in some cases impossible for the Thompson campaign to purchase key times to air his commercials in the end.”

It is, of course, impossible to say whether the votes that went to Romney in the end would have all gone to Thompson and put him closer to second place. When I talked to Thompson media maestro Nelson Warfield, he said he was aware of the Romney media buys and said “anytime someone gobbles up time on the airwaves that hurts because it is time you could have used for your candidate.”

SC GOP Chief Glad He Went Early

Although the Republican National Committee penalized South Carolina GOPers for holding their primary before Super Tuesday (February 5th) and the Palmetto State will have 24 delegages instead of 47, State Party Chairman Katon Dawson said he has “no regrets at all for making us the first in the South in ’08.”

“The state has brought in $18 million in terms of visitors here and we hosted two debates,” Dawson told me over breakfast this morning at the Clarion Town House here, where we were joined by my colleagues Jamie Coomarasamy and Mike Innes of the BBC, “Had I not done so, I would not have been on ‘Washington Journal’ [the CSPAN public affairs program] and NBC, or sitting here with the BBC. And you wouldn’t be buying me breakfast!”

In discussing the primary–which has been pivotal to determining who the Republican presidential nominee has been since 1980–Dawson (who got his start in politics as the driver to State GOP Chairman Drake Edens, one of the architects of the modern South Carolina GOP) noted that this would be the first time state tax dollars would be paying for the primary.

“We always paid for the primary ourselves,” Dawson recalled, “But with 575,000 names in our database and more than 6000 volunteers who man the polls all day Saturday, we needed help.” Accordingly, following some lobbying by Dawson, the Republican-controlled legislature passed legislation to underwrite the quadrennial GOP excercise.

Just back from the Republican National Committee meeting in Washington DC, Dawson offered no predictions on the presidential race. But, he predicted, “if there is no clear winner by Super Tuesday, you will see a rush for the missing delegates.” By “missing delegates,” he meant the delegates denied South Carolina and Michigan–both of which had delegations cut in half by the RNC–for going so early in the presidential nominating calendar.