COLUMBIA, S.C. – Time is running out for former Sen. Fred 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 another disappointing finish in Saturday’s GOP primary likely will sink his chances. Others have much to gain or lose here, but none more than the man whose candidacy has been one of the biggest puzzles of the campaign.
Until now, Thompson has been totally overshadowed by his rivals. He ran third in Iowa, the state that vaulted former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to the front ranks of the race. He got just 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 Gov. Mitt Romney resuscitated his candidacy with a victory.
This was 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 a 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 represented 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.”
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.
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 surprisingly 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.