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Thompson Hopes S.C. Revives His Campaign

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In a lively atmosphere rivaling a rock concert, Mike Huckabee and Chuck Norris encouraged Clemson University students to vote Huckabee in Saturday's primary election. Video by Jonathan Forsythe/washingtonpost.com

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By Dan Balz and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 18, 2008

COLUMBIA, S.C., Jan. 17 -- Time is running out for former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee to make a statement in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Once billed as the party's next Ronald Reagan, he is just two days from knowing whether his candidacy has a future.

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As the first Southern state prepares to vote, Thompson has conceded that a disappointing finish in Saturday's GOP primary would probably sink his chances. Other candidates have much to gain or lose here, but none more than the man whose candidacy has been one of the campaign's biggest puzzles.

Until now, Thompson has been overshadowed by his rivals. He ran third in Iowa, the state that vaulted former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee to the race's front ranks. He got 1 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, where Sen. John McCain of Arizona came back to life. He attracted 4 percent in Michigan on Tuesday, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney resuscitated his candidacy with a victory.

That is hardly the script written for the television and movie actor months ago as he began a high-profile effort to test enthusiasm for his campaign.

Now he is down to one state where he hopes that his combination of Southern roots and conservative views will lead to the breakthrough that has so far escaped him. He isn't reluctant to remind audiences here that he's kin. As he said at a West Columbia restaurant Thursday morning, "It's good to be back in home territory where they know how to cook green beans -- and they're not crunchy."

His rivals doubt his chances, but Thompson believes something is happening in the Palmetto State. Asked during a radio interview at the restaurant Thursday whether his efforts here represent a "too little, too late" strategy, he offered an upbeat assessment.

"We're clearly moving in the right direction," he said. "We had some ground to make up, but from what I can tell, we're moving up."

Noting that Romney's campaign had spent heavily early, only to effectively concede the state this week, Thompson said, "I think you ought to be asking them the question of too early, too late, or something like that."

Thompson advisers see the three biggest strands of the Republican coalition -- economic, social and national security conservatives -- divided among three candidates: Romney, Huckabee and McCain. Thompson, they argue, still has the capacity to unite all three, but only by showing that in South Carolina.

"It's where we feel we need to break through," said campaign manager Bill Lacy.

Lacy said the campaign has run a heavy television ad campaign this week, is making thousands of phone calls and has 200 volunteers to get out the vote.

South Carolina is the key to Thompson's red-state strategy, conceived to take advantage of party rules that award extra delegates to states won by President Bush. A strong showing here, Lacy said, would set up the former senator to consider a major effort in the Jan. 29 Florida primary.


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