Fred Thompson’s Southern Strategy


By: Wall Street Journal

Bypassing Iowa and New Hampshire On the Road to the White House
By AMY SCHATZ
October 30, 2007

Concord, N.H.

Fred Thompson’s cameo appearance here yesterday, to register for the ballot and formally open his state headquarters, was only his second visit to this early primary state since he declared his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination nearly two months ago. He was gone by evening.

Mr. Thompson has been similarly parsimonious with his Iowa travel time — a fact not lost on kingmaking locals. The perceived snubs may seem shortsighted, but the candidate’s time management fits squarely into his broader plan for winning the nomination: rely on the early-voting Southern states of South Carolina and Florida.

“In most of the polls we’re ahead (in South Carolina) or a strong second, even though we’ve invested almost zero resources at this point. We view that as a solid opportunity for us,” says Bill Lacy, Mr. Thompson’s campaign manager.

Mr. Thompson’s “red-state” focus could have a particular payoff if the nomination comes down to a delegate count competition, since the party gives extra weight to states that voted for President Bush in 2004, or elected Republican governors and members of Congress. Most of those states lie in the South, the Midwest and the Rocky Mountains.

“Our polling shows us that we tend to do better in those three areas, particularly in the South,” Mr. Lacy says. “That has to do with who Fred is, where’s he’s from, and has to do with some of the baggage that Mayor Giuliani and Gov. Romney have from being from New York and Massachusetts and having more liberal records,” he adds. That’s a reference to Mr. Thompson’s two biggest rivals, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

It’s not a conventional presidential strategy to play down Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates who have tried skipping them generally haven’t fared well. And Mr. Thompson said during his visit yesterday that he’s planning on spending enough time and money in New Hampshire to at least make a respectable showing before the vote heads South.

At a visit to a dental-insurance company here, Mr. Thompson told about a hundred employees that he intended to campaign in the Granite State “early and often” and that, while “I haven’t bothered you yet” with advertising, he soon would.

After formally filing his candidacy papers, he faced pointed questioning from the local media, which hasn’t seen him in over six weeks, asking how he expected to win if he wasn’t going to campaign there. He said he’s planning to run an “aggressive” campaign in New Hampshire, and “we’ll be back here shortly.” His aides said they expected him to return to the state in the next few weeks but couldn’t give a timetable.

Mr. Thompson’s more natural base is in the South. As one of two Southerners in the race, he is counting on his accent, as well as his social and economically conservative views, to appeal to voters there. His chief regional rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, has gotten favorable reviews for his debate performances, but lags far behind in fund-raising. He had $651,000 in the bank as of the end of September, compared with $7.1 million for Mr. Thompson.

“Everything he stands for is really what South Carolina is all about,” says Gresham Barrett, a South Carolina Republican congressman who has endorsed Mr. Thompson, noting the candidate’s longstanding opposition to abortion, tough stance on immigration, and fiscal conservatism.

South Carolina will be the fifth state to choose delegates for the Republican convention, after caucuses in Iowa and Wyoming and primaries in New Hampshire and Michigan. Voters in South Carolina are scheduled to head to the polls Jan. 19. Florida’s next, 10 days later, before the big onslaught of Feb. 5 states.

Mr. Thompson received 21% support in the latest South Carolina poll, according to an Insider Advantage survey of 1,280 Republican primary voters conducted in early October. He had a five point advantage over his rivals — Messrs. Giuliani, Romney and McCain.

While Mr. Thompson is more focused on South Carolina than Iowa or New Hampshire, he’s not spending as much time, or resources, there as his main rivals.

So far this year, Mr. Romney has visited South Carolina 11 times and Mr. Giuliani eight, according to National Journal, which tracks candidate visits. Mr. Romney and Mr. Giuliani have both been there twice just since Mr. Thompson entered the race, according to their campaigns. Mr. Thompson has visited South Carolina just twice since entering the race, the second time last week, for one day, where he made three public stops before flying to Alabama for private fund-raisers.

Each of the leading Republican candidates brings their own problems to South Carolina, though Mr. Thompson’s may be the easiest to fix. The biggest rap against him has been about his low-energy speeches and lethargic campaign schedule.

Mr. Thompson counters that he’s running the race his own way, and told reporters yesterday that he needed time to raise the funds necessary to run ads and field a competitive campaign.

His competitors face other obstacles. Despite backing from leaders at the evangelical Bob Jones University, Mr. Romney still faces distrust from some Christian conservatives wary of his Mormon faith. The decision by pastor Don Wilton, former president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, to recant his Romney endorsement didn’t help. Both Mr. Thompson and Mr. Giuliani have acknowledged that they don’t attend church regularly. But Mr. Giuliani’s efforts to defend his position on gay rights, gun control and his pro-abortion rights stance remain an issue.

“Mayor Giuliani has problems with some of the issues on the right. While a fiscal conservative, he’s not a social conservative,” says Randy Page, executive director of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a nonprofit that has lobbied for school vouchers. He has endorsed Mr. Thompson.

But even Mr. Page says his candidate needs to spend more time in-state. “South Carolina is a very relationship state. They like to see and feel and touch their candidates,” he says.

Mr. Thompson recently did spend four days in Florida, visiting seven cities and rolling out his first big policy initiative, on immigration. It was his second trip to the state since he announced his candidacy.

Yet his decision to speak for five minutes to a gathering of party officials and activists a few weekends ago, after spending $100,000 for the opportunity, confused some party leaders. Messrs. Giuliani, Romney and McCain spoke at much greater length. And he lost out on the endorsement of Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter just two days after the two men met while Mr. Thompson was rolling out his new immigration plan. Mr. Hunter endorsed Mr. Romney instead.

Write to Amy Schatz at Amy.Schatz@wsj.com

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