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Down-home could have downside for Thompson

  • Story Highlights
  • Southerner Thompson has edge in South Carolina but makes it must-win, too
  • No Republican candidate has won nomination without winning in South Carolina
  • While Thompson is at top of polls, many voters still undecided
  • Thompson campaign's organization still getting off the ground in South Carolina
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By Peter Hamby
CNN
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COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- In South Carolina, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson's campaign is fond of pointing out their boss' Southern-fried heritage.

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Fred Thompson's Southern background helps him in South Carolina but also makes it necessary to win there.

"I think first of all that Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, is in fact a whole lot closer to Lexington, South Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina, than are Boston or New York for instance," said Walter Whetsell, a veteran South Carolina consultant now working for Thompson. "But I think that that has a literal closeness, but I think figuratively that the values that he shares are our values."

When Thompson himself made his debut here as a presidential candidate one month ago, he was quick to point out that, "It's good to be in a place that when I talk, people understand what I'm saying."

The line worked every time he used it. His Southern background alone is one reason Thompson came out near or at the top of most state polls.

But Thompson's down-home attributes have a flip side. As Thompson fights for position in Iowa and struggles to gain footing in New Hampshire, South Carolina will become more and more crucial to his late-start presidential bid. Video Watch whether Thompson is doing enough in South Carolina »

"If he doesn't do well in South Carolina, he can pack it up and go home," said analyst Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "That has to be his first win or it's hard to see where he's going to get one... That's his only state."

Thompson's national campaign spokesman Jeff Sadosky stresses that "no one state is more important than another," but Thompson's Palmetto State team eagerly point out just how important this state is for them.

As Whetsell says, Thompson is "one of us." And no Republican has gone on to win the Republican nomination without winning South Carolina since the primary was created in 1980.

Thompson's first official trip to South Carolina on September 10 was a rousing kickoff for the campaign and perhaps Thompson's best performance of his post-announcement tour of the early voting states.

More than one person in the crowd at Doc's Barbecue in Columbia called Thompson "the only real conservative" in the presidential race. But one month after that appearance, Thompson has yet to return.

"We will have him here as much as we need him here to win," Whetsell said.

Republicans here privately offer many of the same criticisms that have dogged Thompson nationally: mainly that several underwhelming appearances have quieted the buzz and slowed the momentum that drove the Thompson campaign in its early stages.

Still, most say that despite a few gaffes -- such as his statement during a Florida trip that he didn't "remember the details" of the 2005 Terri Schiavo right-to-die case -- Thompson is still a favorite to win over the values voters that dominate the primary.

In a late September straw poll conducted by the Palmetto Family Council, a conservative family values group, Thompson placed third while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finished sixth. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who showed up at the poll in person, won the vote.

Thompson has catapulted to the top of state polls, but those polls are still dominated by undecided voters.

"A lot of the void that was out there and to a degree the Thompson campaign has been fueled by is this search for the next Ronald Reagan," the state's Republican Gov. Mark Sanford recently said. "Whether or not he materializes as that is obviously what the next 100 days is all about."

Although the campaign has announced 12 state legislative endorsements and the official backing of South Carolina Rep. Gresham Barrett, its ground game is still in its infancy.

The campaign's new South Carolina headquarters, not yet occupied by staffers, has the look of an abandoned drive-through.

The narrow, one-story building on Gervais Street in Columbia used to be occupied by South Carolina's most powerful Democrat, Rep. Jim Clyburn. Until a few days ago, the building's leasing company was still advertising the office space with a large billboard outside the storefront.

Thompson's staff, led by longtime Thompson aide Dean Rice, will be moving in shortly. Meanwhile, the campaign is working out of a cramped print shop at Whetsell's direct mail office about 20 miles away in Lexington, producing brochures and working through spreadsheets of South Carolina phone numbers, hoping to catch up to the other campaigns that have been doing similar chores for months.

The campaign has just polished off its first piece of direct mail, which paints Thompson as a small government conservative who will abolish the IRS, appoint "strict constructionist judges" and focus on "returning authority to the states" on "family" issues.

Thompson's geographical proximity will be an asset on the stump. But the fact that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani continues to lead state polls with Thompson proves that geography is far from a determining factor for South Carolina voters, who like to point out that they are more sophisticated than the national media take them to be.

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There's also this fact: While no Republican has ever won the party's nomination without winning South Carolina, it's also true that no true-bred Southerner has ever won this primary either.

The Bushes emerged out of Connecticut and west Texas. Former Sen. Bob Dole is a Kansan. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan came here all the way from California and walked out on top. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Fred Thompson (Politician)

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