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Campaign diary: Two days, three Republicans and one giant 'Eddie'

  • Story Highlights
  • Three leading GOP Republicans visited South Carolina this week
  • Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani each made campaign stops
  • Candidates seeking conservative support in key early voting state
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By Peter Hamby
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Peter Hamby is CNN's 2008 campaign producer based in Columbia, South Carolina.

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- Three front-runners for the Republican nomination brought three very different campaign styles to South Carolina this week, ping-ponging around the Palmetto State trying to win over the crucial mass of primary voters still unsure about which Republican is the "real" conservative in the race.

One candidate with a gravelly, Southern drawl talked about grits and accused his Massachusetts rival of trying to "buy South Carolina."

That rival was also in the state, managing to work in five campaign stops in just over 24 hours, including a speech in front of a 40-foot indoor plastic sculpture named Eddie, a giant interactive children's museum exhibit touted as the "world's largest child."

And a former mayor from New York City jetted in at the last minute for about an hour, shook some hands, then turned around and left.

It began Tuesday morning in Columbia, when Fred Thompson was nearly 30 minutes late to an event at the State House, where he was to announce a "Vets for Fred" coalition with several decorated military veterans who were not, apparently, supporting decorated military veteran Sen. John McCain.

A dedicated South Carolina field organizer for the "Divided We Fail" campaign looked at his watch and mulled over going back to the office.

"Some of us got work to do," he said.

Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee, finally showed up to meet several dozen of his eager fans, speaking for 10 minutes about American exceptionalism while six American flags whipped in the breeze behind him, before jumping into an SUV to head up the street for a local TV interview.

One hundred miles away, in Greenville, the hard-working Mitt Romney showed up, touring the Carolina Hope Adoption Agency.

Outside, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who is Mormon, waxed biblical on the value of children, attempting to quote the Old Testament.

"As it says in the Book of Psalms, what is it?," he asked. "A hundred and twenty-six. Where did, I think it's the 126 chapter of Psalms, it says effectively this ... I'll be loose ..."

Someone in the crowd corrected him.

"One twenty-seven! I was only one off. A hundred and twenty-seven chapter of Psalms, it says, 'Children are an inheritance of the Lord, happy is he who hath his quiver full of them.' "

Romney quickly moved on.

"With that, we're happy to take any questions you may have on this topic or, unfortunately, on others," he said.

CNN then learned Romney would be holding a private lunch with "member of the Bob Jones University family," but the meeting between the Mormon candidate and a group of fundamentalist Christians was closed to the media.

After that, a stop at a deli in Anderson.

In the meantime, Thompson had made it up to the town of Fort Mill, just south of the North Carolina border.

It seemed Thompson had downed a Red Bull since his morning speech. It was a lively event. At the Beef O'Brady's restaurant, Thompson dished out some conservative red meat to the packed-in crowd, telling of his opposition to gay marriage, illegal immigrants and "activist" judges.

Then Thompson, pacing around with his hands clasped, showed some unusual gusto and issued arguably his harshest attack yet on a Republican opponent. "Now, the governor of Massachusetts has apparently spent $20 million of his own personal fortune, and apparently a good chunk of that in South Carolina," he said. "All I got to say is: Governor, you can't buy South Carolina! You can't even rent South Carolina."

Lazy? Thompson brushed off the label.

"Sometimes, I'm asked whether I have sufficient fire in my belly," he said. "But ultimately, the American people have to ask themselves, do you want someone with his finger on the nuclear button who has fire in his belly?"

Polite but unsure laughter on that one.

Thompson took some questions from the media, then went to Spartanburg for one more campaign stop.

Romney got up early the next morning to speak at the Children's Museum in Columbia in front of a somewhat unsettling backdrop -- Eddie, the 40-foot interactive indoor sculpture of a child.

According to the Children's Museum, "You can climb his vertebrae to his brain, crawl through his heart, bounce around inside his stomach and slide out his intestines."

Romney didn't take the plunge, but he did rattle off his CEO pitch to the early morning crowd.

Eddie, all lips and teeth behind Romney, seemed like a big fan of the former Massachusetts governor's no-nonsense approach.

Open markets and free trade? Eddie grinned. Tax credits for home schooling? Eddie grinned. Fighting the jihadists who want to establish an Islamic caliphate? Oh, yes.

Romney took several questions from the media about the news of the day, smiling his way through questions about Pat Robertson's endorsement of Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Sam Brownback's endorsement of McCain. "You can't get 'em all," he said.

Then, just like magic, he was gone, off to New Hampshire for more rapid-fire campaigning.

Thompson finished his South Carolina swing the same morning at Tommy's Ham House in Greenville, where, according to The Associated Press, he gazed longingly at a plate of sausage, biscuits and grits and said, "It's mighty good to be back in God's country."

Thompson flew back to his home state to hold a fundraiser in Nashville.

And so then, there was one: Giuliani, his campaign mum on the details, was supposed to show up somewhere in Columbia in a matter of hours.

It turned out he would visit his state campaign headquarters, housed in a drab brick building on Sunset Boulevard in West Columbia across the street from Rent-A-Wreck.

Hizzoner's appearance, being last minute, brought in only a meager crowd.

The mayor appeared through a back door, hustled in by aides who initiated the applause.

Giuliani, in pinstripes, spoke briefly and took some questions, including one from a reporter who asked about Robertson's endorsement, and how the host of "The 700 Club" had once declared that 9/11 was "God's wrath" for homosexuality and pornography.

"I am very, very pleased to have Pat Robertson endorse me, and I think those comments he explained a long time ago," Giuliani said. "Gosh, I've had explain lots of comments of mine at different times."

Before leaving, he hoisted a small boy, about 3 years old, in his arms and tickled his belly. With the cherubic boy anchored on his shoulder, Giuliani pivoted and took on a decidedly un-cute topic.

"Let me take a poll," he said. "How many of you think illegal immigrants should get a driver's license?"

The assembled crowd, waiting to take a photo with the mayor, looked around. With no one biting on the Hillary Clinton bait, Giuliani coaxed a "Go Gamecocks!" cheer out of the boy instead.

Outside in the parking lot, after Giuliani had been whisked back to the airport, a man in a Giuliani mask waved a "FREE BERNIE" sign, a reference to Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner whose pending indictment had just been reported in the national media.

When asked which rival GOP campaign he worked for, the masked protester remained silent and kept waving to no one in particular. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Mitt RomneyFred ThompsonRudolph Giuliani

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