It seems strange to relitigate a fight from the 2008 GOP presidential primary, but perhaps many Republicans’ minds are on the notion of multiple conservative candidates dividing the vote in South Carolina, leaving the “Establishment” choice a path to victory.
Mike Huckabee said on Fox News yesterday that John McCain asked Fred Thompson to stay in the race in South Carolina, in order to divide the conservative vote. McCain beat Huckabee in South Carolina by 3 percentage points.
“John certainly encouraged Fred to stay in,” Huckabee said. “I think everyone understood, Fred knew he wasn’t going to get the nomination . . . Many people in the McCain camp have since confirmed, he said, ‘please stay in, I need you in South Carolina,’ primarily in the upstate where I had my strength, but you know, that’s politics. That’s what happens.”
McCain vehemently denied the story yesterday; this morning Fred Thompson appeared on Fox News to address it.
“Minding my own business, having my second cup of coffee, contemplating the election in general terms and the future, and Mike wanted to revisit the campaign last time,” Thompson said, smiling. “What Mike said is fine, except for one thing: there’s not one shred of truth to it! Senator McCain and I never had a conversation about staying in the race, staying out of the race . . . Mike’s been around long enough to know not to inhale that stuff too deeply . . . It’s just a little rewriting of history that’s unnecessary.”
When Huckabee made his charge, he said it without any visible bitterness. Perhaps believing this claim is part of how Huckabee made his peace with the experience of running for president, enjoying some early victories, and then falling short. Even for the most thick-skinned and confident candidate, an electoral defeat must be an intensely personal rejection. After all, the name on the ballot isn’t your campaign manager, your advertising director, your press secretary, or anyone around you; it’s your name. So it’s not surprising that a candidate might look for some explanation that would shift the cause of the defeat from their own mistakes, missteps, or overall inability to persuade voters to some outside force or confluence of events.
People in politics, like people everywhere, often choose to believe conclusions that are convenient or reassuring and tend to ignore inconvenient facts and harder truths. The candidates who fail to win the Republican nomination in 2012 may very well conclude that their bid was unfairly impeded by the collusion of their foes. (Quite a few times on Twitter, I’ve seen Michele Bachmann referred to as a stalking horse for Mitt Romney, a surrogate attack dog who takes on the unpopular duties in exchange for reward later. But if she were an agent of the Romney campaign, why would she drop out so early? Why wouldn’t Romney keep her in the mix to attack his rivals to South Carolina and beyond?)