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.
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.
Thompson has been most aggressive here in challenging Huckabee, whose candidacy has drawn heavy support from evangelicals and whose Southern ties complicate Thompson's chances.
Strategists around Huckabee and Romney see Thompson not so much as a threat to win the nomination but as a candidate who could help McCain by taking votes from their coalitions. Some believe he is a stalking horse for McCain. Thompson is a longtime ally of McCain's and supported him in 2000.
"Why would he get aggressive all of a sudden here?" asked Ed Rollins, Huckabee's campaign chairman, noting the series of attacks that Thompson directed at Huckabee in a recent debate. Rollins added: "Thirty-five seconds after he drops out, he endorses McCain. . . . Anything he takes from us I'm concerned about, because it's a close race."
Thompson, who touts what he calls a "100 percent pro-life" record on abortion, could peel religious conservatives from Huckabee. Romney aides fear that Thompson could take away anybody-but-McCain mainline conservatives.
At an event in Prosperity on Thursday, a man told Thompson that many people had gotten "push poll" calls from a group backing Huckabee, an allegation echoed by several others. An angry Thompson said he had heard of push polls accusing him of supporting what opponents call "partial birth" abortion.
"They're taking the most outrageous, easily disproved things that they can come up with. . . . It's so ham-handed," Thompson said. "I had a 100 percent pro-life voting record over eight years."
Asked about the issue during a news conference in Columbia on Thursday night, Huckabee said, "We think push-polling is a terrible way to campaign."
He said he had called for the organizers to stop. But he noted that campaign finance laws prevent his campaign from talking to the groups using the tactic.
All the major Republican candidates except Rudolph W. Giuliani campaigned in South Carolina today. Romney canceled some appearances because of the weather and flew to Nevada, where he hopes to win Saturday's GOP caucuses.
Before boarding the plane, Romney held a brief news conference with reporters at a Staples store outside Columbia, where he again accused his rivals of being beholden to Washington lobbyists.
"I don't have lobbyists running my campaign," he told reporters.
Romney was challenged on that point by a reporter who noted that Ron Kaufman, a longtime Washington lobbyist, is often by his side. "I said I don't have lobbyists running my campaign, and he's not running my campaign," an irritated Romney said. "He's an adviser."
Pressed, Romney said: "Are you listening to what I'm saying? . . . Ron is a wonderful friend and adviser. He is not paid. . . . But I do not have lobbyists running my campaign. Ron Kaufman is not even at the senior strategy meetings of our campaign."
Aside from Kaufman, lobbyist Vin Weber, a founder of the Washington firm Craig & Winstock, serves as Romney's policy chairman.
Huckabee on Thursday raised the thorny issue of the Confederate flag, which roiled the 2000 primary. Eight years ago, McCain refused to take a position on whether the flag should be allowed to fly over the State House, saying that was a state issue. After the campaign, he said he regretted that stance and argued that it should come down.
The legislature has since voted to allow the flag to be displayed on the State House grounds, instead of on the capitol dome. Huckabee said the flag is a state issue. McCain said last spring that he believes the issue has been settled.
McCain campaigned in Columbia on Thursday, where he received testimonials from a group of legislators and was introduced by Jack Kemp, one of the GOP's leading economic conservatives, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a strong opponent of abortion and of wasteful government spending.
Staff writers Juliet Eilperin with McCain, Michael D. Shear with Romney and Joel Achenbach with Thompson contributed to this report.