PROSPERITY, S.C.--Fred Thompson is punctual. So punctual, in fact, that when I arrived at 12:23 this afternoon for his 12:20 appearance at the Stable Steakhouse here in Prosperity--thinking that he'd start at least 30 minutes late, like nearly every other presidential candidate--Thompson was already speaking. I asked the hostess how long he'd been at it. She said three minutes.
Being a pack-minded
member of the national media, I was ready to interpret this as a sign
of Thompsonian lethargy--the theory being that the former Tennessee senator doesn't rack up
delays because he only makes one or two stops a day (unlike,
say, John McCain, who typically makes five to seven). There's some
truth to this. "I never intended on being a professional politician,"
he said at today's event. "Still don't." Not exactly the best way to quiet
critics who say you don't have the drive to be president. And the
opening movement of his stump speech--a drawn-out disquisition
on the Founding Fathers--belongs in a high-school history classroom,
not on the campaign trail.
But a funny thing happened before I could nod off: Fred got fired up. About halfway through, Thompson started detouring from his remarks to draw sharp--and, considering his campaign's ailing condition, necessary--contrasts with his rivals. First he slammed Romney. "I don't have to worry about reconciling my positions with what I've done in the past in order to be politically feasible," he said. "You know what I'm talking about. How you gonna tell where a fella's gonna be tomorrow if you don't know where he's been yesterday?" Then he bashed Huckabee, first on foreign policy--"It's not the time to have a president who needs training wheels"--and later on tuition breaks for illegal immigrants. Next up: Giuliani, who, according to Thompson, has the "ridiculous notion" of "having to say he'll appoint judges [he doesn't] agree with" on abortion. Fred even took a veiled shot at McCain, an old friend, on amnesty.
But the best was yet to come. At the end of the requisite Q&A session, a local supporter stood up and, in thanking Thompson for his
"commitment to pro-life issues," mentioned that "a lot of folks
around here [have gotten] some negative calls the last couple of days that
misrepresented your record on life."
"Really?" said Thompson.
The crowd murmured. "Oh yes. Mmmhmm. Yep."
"Can I ask you to raise your hand if you got a phone call like that?" About 25 hands went up.
"Wow. Half the people in here have gotten... who do they say is calling? Do they say anything good about any candidate?"
"Huckabee!" the crowd shouted. It seems most of them had received calls from Common Sense Issues, the pro-Huckabee group that's conducting negative push-polling throughout the state.
"I hope people are taking note of this," Thompson said, glancing at the press gaggle (we were). "They're calling up and touting Huckabee and then they ask who you're for and you say Fred and then they say... as I understand it, one of the things is that I supported partial-birth abortion.
More murmuring. "Yeah. Yep. That's right."
"So they're picking the most outrageous, easily disproved things they can come up with."
"Desperate!" yelled a supporter from Los Angeles.
"It's amazing to me that it's so ham-handed," continued Thompson, noting that he compiled a "100 percent pro-life voting record in the Senate." "I call on the governor"--Huckabee, that is--"to put a stop to this. You know, they did the same thing on his behalf in Iowa. And the governor can't sit back and say, 'I'm gonna stay above this, we need clean politics and, you know, can't we all get along'--and have this thing going on right under his nose in state after state. It's called responsibility." The applause, nearly all of it geriatric, would've overwhelmed a room twice as large.
We'll see how Huckabee responds. So far his spokesman has said that Huck would like the calls to stop--before reminding reporters that "it's a free country." That said, push-polling is probably the least of Thompson's problems. After disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Fred bet all his chips on a South Carolina comeback. Now, with less than two days to go, he's still stuck in fourth-place.
Thompson may show up on time. But it could be that he started fighting a little too late.