Politics & Policy

Can South Carolina Save Fred?

Chances of survival

The outlook for Fred Thompson looks tough.

Take your pick of pollsters — he rarely gets higher than 15 percent, and in the last week, the narrowest gap between him and frontrunner John McCain has been 8 percent.

Team Thompson is left hoping for a last-minute shift in direction, as Michigan shifted to Mitt Romney, New Hampshire shifted to McCain (and Hillary), and Mike Huckabee’s edge in the polls grew in the final days before the Iowa caucuses. On this front there’s still some hope;one recent poll suggested, “Only slightly more than half of the voters had a good idea about whom they would support. Nearly 40 percent of the voters were undecided.”

One Thompson strategist looks at the cross-tabs in the latest Rasmussen poll and notices that Huckabee does best among the 18-to-29 demographic, and Thompson does worst. “That’s not exactly the typical age of your hard-core Republican primary voter who’s certain to show up.”

(Disturbingly for Thompson — the guy running as the consistent conservative — he trails McCain among self-identified conservatives 24 to 21 percent, according to Rasmussen.)

Thompson spent nearly two weeks running hard in South Carolina, and he is seeing only mixed results. Thompson appears to be targeting the areas that came out for George W. Bush rather than John McCain in 2000.

Bush won all but four of the inland counties. The two biggest Bush counties were Greenville (58.47 percent of 73,281 votes) and Spartanburg (58.49 percent of 37,159). Just a little behind were Lexington (57.40 percent of 45,277) and Aiken (55.64 percent of 23,701).

McCain won the coastal counties Horry (53.23 percent of 27,735), Georgetown (49.68 percent of 7,458), Charleston (49.75 percent of 47,269), and Beaufort (53.16 percent of 21,212), as well as a few sparsely populated inland counties.

The tough going in South Carolina is oddly representative of the frustration for those who thought Thompson could make a late entrance and burst to the nomination. His poll numbers never jumped after he entered the race; Thompson has joked about this on the trail, saying, “You always look a little better from a distance.” But surging in this situation wasn’t impossible, as demonstrated by Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor has claimed part of the electoral real estate Thompson had hoped to occupy — the Southerner, the charmer, the man with impeccable social-conservative credentials.

Thompson spent significant time in Iowa, only to finish with a modest 13 percent, barely above McCain (who essentially poked the state in the eye by denouncing ethanol subsidies). His team believes that a Politico story two days before the Iowa caucuses claiming Thompson would drop out and endorse McCain quelched an inching momentum.

Fredheads can lament that the baseless article mugged their man and took him off message, forcing him to repeat denials for his final 24 hours. But the Thompson campaign bears its own responsibility for the perception that their candidate would rather be elsewhere. Would that five or six percent have bailed if the story hadn’t seemed plausible on some level? Could we imagine any other Republican candidate losing nearly a third of his support in a day on a rumor of withdrawal from the race?

When the history of this race is written, Thompson may be lamented as a bright, funny conservative who simply couldn’t hit the emotional chords demanded by today’s political environment. Most of the winners so far have managed to tap into some deep but vague appeal: Huckabee’s high-profile, nice-guy refusal to run a negative ad; Obama’s hope, optimism, and policy-detail-free invitation to help him make history; Hillary Clinton’s demonstration to New Hampshire Democrats that she cares so much about them that she sheds tears; Romney’s all-out pledge to restore the glory days of Detroit.

Thompson’s “fire in the belly” perception issue probably has less to do with his own innate drive than with the fact that any normal level of ambition pales in comparison to the weeping, dramatic, raw emote-a-thon the other candidates offer.

It’s quite conceivable that Thompson could stay in. A close second might be good enough to make a departure from the race seem premature. His numbers in Florida don’t look promising, but one would think that on February 5, Thompson would have a shot at Georgia, Alabama, and his home state of Tennessee. He could perhaps also win Missouri, West Virginia, and some of the Western states.

On Fred’s website is the message, “Help us be ready for Florida and beyond.” But if Thompson can’t catch fire in South Carolina, where will he be?

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot blog for NRO.

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