December 5th, 2007
03:00 PM ET
15 years ago

GOP race remains wide-open in South Carolina

Fred Thompson visited a gun shop in South Carolina on Tuesday.

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) - Fred Thompson stood in the middle of a gun shop in Greer, South Carolina on Tuesday, trying to sum up the Republican race for the White House.

"It's a very fluid situation," the former senator said. "As far as I'm concerned its up to the Good Lord and the American people, and that's just fine with me."

But probably not even the Lord himself could have predicted the Republican race here would be this wide open this late in election season.

South Carolina, a crucial test of a candidate's conservative mettle, has voted for the eventual GOP nominee in each election since the state's primary began in 1980.

Like the national contest, the Republican race in the Palmetto State is essentially a free-for-all, with no candidate able to solidly break free from the rest of the pack .

An AP/Pew poll of likely Republican voters released this week shows a three-way dead heat for first place in South Carolina, with Thompson coming in at 18 percent, just one point behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who are tied at 19 percent.

Nipping at their heels and still very much in the race are Sen. John McCain, at 13 percent, and the up-and-coming former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, at 10 percent. Rep. Ron Paul, who has sent out at least six glossy direct mail pieces in the state in recent weeks, comes in at six percent.

On top of that, support is soft: just 44 percent of GOP likely voters said they "strongly support" their choice.

"There are probably going to be two winners here, because I don't see that big of a thread between any of the candidates," said Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "It's going be a rough and tumble brawl. It's going to be tough."

The only certainty in the race seems to be that things will remain uncertain.

George W. Bush's lead in South Carolina evaporated overnight after McCain won New Hampshire in 2000. McCain and Bush competed in the following weeks to win over South Carolina voters, but McCain notoriously lost that contest after a largely-anonymous serious of slanderous attacks derailed his bid.

With the primary date set for Jan. 19, just over a week after the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8, the window for a candidate to differentiate himself is now even smaller than it was in 2000. South Carolinians may get saturated with television ads shortly after the New Year as candidates jostle for position in such a short period of time.

"Christmas is coming up, there's going to be some bowl games, and politics will be on the backburner except for in the mail," Dawson said. "As soon as Santa Claus comes down the chimney and leaves, here come the candidates."

But unlike the Democratic candidates, who are overwhelmingly focusing their campaign stops on Iowa, Republicans have already made time for South Carolina. Since Thanksgiving, McCain, Giuliani, Paul, Huckabee and Thompson have all campaigned in the state.

Only Romney has not visited in recent weeks, but is still running strong thanks to non-stop TV ads and a barrage of direct mail pieces.

Romney long held significant leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, but faced low expectations in conservative South Carolina because of questions about his Mormon faith and his past support for abortion right and gay rights.

Romney's lead in those states is shrinking, but in South Carolina, Romney is now a bona fide frontrunner. However, as is the case in Iowa, one of Romney's most cash-strapped opponents could pose the biggest challenge: Huckabee.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving, Huckabee paid a visit to the state and slipped easily back into his old ministerial role, giving two sermons at different Baptist churches in South Carolina, telling one congregation, "The only good thing about any of us is the God in us."

At First Baptist church in Fountain Inn, churchgoers waited in line for nearly an hour to shake his hand after the service.

Contrast that eagerness with comments from Robert Taylor - a dean at Bob Jones University who has endorsed Romney - who told a closed-door audience of the school's students and alumni in November: "I think there's a lot of us evangelicals that have kind of held back a little" with Romney because of his faith.

Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, a die-hard supporter of McCain, admitted Tuesday that, "what you see nationally with Huckabee is happening in South Carolina."

(Although the AP poll shows Huckabee at 10 percent, the poll's sample period began nearly a month ago, before Huckabee's recent surge in media attention.)

McCain has taken an aggressive posture on the campaign trail, not shying away from drawing contrasts with his opponents. He sent out a mailer here in October criticizing Giuliani on his support for abortion rights, and he has begun to hammer his rivals for lacking foreign policy and military experience.

This time around, McCain also has a long list of endorsements, the kind of institutional support he lacked in 2000.

However, in South Carolina, immigration continues to be McCain's Achilles' heel.

At any given campaign stop in the state, if a candidate takes five questions, two or three of those will almost certainly be about illegal immigration, and McCain gets plenty.

But the majority of McCain's campaign stops take place in friendly territory, where he gets a hero's welcome - at VFW and American Legion Halls, or in the coastal areas populated by veterans where McCain performed well in 2000.

McCain's biggest challenge in those areas may come from Giuliani. The mayor, his lead bolstered by his national fame and name recognition, appears in South Carolina slightly less often than other candidates but likes to visit booming coastal communities heavy with retirees, many of whom moved to places like Hilton Head from his native New York.

Giuliani even brought along the gruff New York congressman Peter King for a recent campaign stop at a retirement community in Bluffton, with Giuliani touting their shared Brooklyn roots.

Unlike McCain, Giuliani has recently stayed away from Greenville and Spartanburg in the opposite side of the state, dominated by religious conservatives and much of the state's business community, although his campaign recently opened a new office in Spartanburg.

Oran Smith of the Palmetto Family Council, which is affiliated with James Dobson's group Focus on the Family, said Giuliani seems to campaign in the state less than the other candidates and has been "crowded out" by voters looking for a "true conservative."

"So many now are focusing on people they think are more in line with their values, but can win," he said. "So you've got Romney and Thompson vying for that "conservative who can win" label, and all of a sudden here comes Huckabee."

Thompson is often criticized for running what some say is a lackadaisical campaign. But Thompson answers his critics by routinely citing his strong poll numbers in the state, and the Tennesseean likes to say "it's good to be home" when campaigning down south.

Despite the national criticism, Thompson draws strong crowds in South Carolina and seems to thrive in smaller meet-and-greets, where he jokes about college football and southern food while touting his "consistent conservative" message, frequently criticizing Romney for changing positions on abortion.

Besides Romney, Thompson is the only Republican to run television ads in the state.

But now that the holiday season has arrived, observers say, South Carolinians are more likely to pay attention to commercials from Best Buy or Target than to ads talking immigration and taxes.

With those distractions, the race's outcome will likely remain murky until primary voters actually show up to the polls in January.

- CNN South Carolina Producer Peter Hamby

Filed under: South Carolina
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Mike - NYC

    "it's up to the good lord..."

    News flash to Thompson – the good lord is not a registered voter and (surprise!) not even a US citizen.

    Besides, I doubt he endorse anyone hanging out in a gun shot with young children.

    December 5, 2007 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  2. Chris, Middletown, CT

    I'm a Republican – and trying to change the party from the inside. I am socially liberal and fiscally conservative (very much how a moderate Democrat would describe themselves) – if the Republicans pick anyone except Giuliani – they are a party anti-abortion – no gay rights bigots – on the flip side – the Democrats are running all the far left candidates proposing massive socialist agendas – I know many dislike Giuliani (mostly for dumb reasons...he was married multiple times, bad relationship with his kids..etc) – but he does represent what the majority of us describe ourselves as "moderate" – which other candidate does that?? Certainly none of the Democrats...while they are socially liberal....they are also fiscally liberal too....all the other Republicans are socially conservative and fiscally only one choice....a hybrid – Giuliani (before you post hate stuff...just "prove it" – no rhetoric...ok?

    December 5, 2007 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  3. James, Iowa City, IA

    Which "lord" is this blogger addressing? The Christian conception of "Lord," which Thompsion is referring to, does not include ideas of ignorance; an omniscient Lord does not make "predictions." We should pay more attention to the way we present/address our country's various faiths, whether they be Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Atheist.

    December 5, 2007 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  4. Richard, Ewing, NJ

    Chris. Evidently, you know little about Giuliani. If you are socially liberal and fiscally conservative, then you are not anything like modern Democrats. By modern Democrats I am guessing that you mean something like DLC. You are the very definition of a libertarian. Ron Paul represents your idea more than Giuliani.

    On the other note, the rest of the republicans are not "no gay right bigots", why would you say something so uneducated? They are not for same-sex marriage, but neither the major Democratic candidates nor Guiliani. By the way, marriage is privilage, not a right.

    December 5, 2007 05:39 pm at 5:39 pm |
  5. Steve, Portland, OR

    News flash for Thompson. This is an election for the President of the United States, not the NRA.

    December 5, 2007 05:54 pm at 5:54 pm |
  6. CLINTON 2008

    Madame President of the United States…it's an extraordinary thought. We truly are in a momentous time, where a woman's potential has no limitations," "Hillary Clinton has already proven to a generation of women that there are no limits for success. She is driven by her passion for public service and her belief in the enormous potential of our country. Smart, capable and strong in her convictions, Hillary has transcended the dictates of what is thought to be possible for our time.

    "Hillary is a powerful voice for change as we find our country at an important crossroads. Under her leadership, our country will regain its respect within the global community. She will prioritize issues of global climate change, universal healthcare and rebuilding a strong economy. After 8 long years, the public will once again have faith in their government.

    "Another former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote, 'In government, in business, and in the professions there may be a day when women will be looked upon as persons. We are, however, far from that day as yet.' More than 50 years later 'that day' is now upon us…and Hillary Clinton is ready to shatter through that glass ceiling for all women."



    December 5, 2007 06:03 pm at 6:03 pm |
  7. JS, Pitts, PA

    Nice picture!

    Now I know what I'm getting my 8-year old for Christmas. A semi-automatic will fit perfectly in the Christmas stocking.

    December 5, 2007 06:05 pm at 6:05 pm |
  8. Anne, Milford, CT

    Does America really want a president and first lady who have at least six marriages between the two of them? I still can't understand how Pat Robinson could support Giuliani when he moralized so much about Bill Clinton, another philandering skirt chaser

    December 5, 2007 06:41 pm at 6:41 pm |

    Senator Thomposn's comment about "it being up to the lord and the american people" is the vilest of pandering. As far as I know, the " lord" doesn't have a vote and I'm not sure he would vote for the senator if he did.

    Invoking religion at every opportunity shows a lack of true moral fiber, character and strength. Surely he could use his asking the lords help for a better purpose than getting elected. Very Sad!

    December 5, 2007 08:41 pm at 8:41 pm |
  10. Joel Joslin - Raleigh, NC

    Giuliani's moral and family track record DOES matter. If he can't even parent his kids and is so thoroughly despicable when it comes to his marriage (the stuff he did in his second marriage with his affair is just ghastly), I sure don't trust him to run this country.

    December 6, 2007 12:01 am at 12:01 am |
  11. Val Davydov, Agawam, MA

    Chris, Middletown, CT, you said: "I know many dislike Giuliani (mostly for dumb reasons…he was married multiple times, bad relationship with his kids..etc)".

    Pal, you are intentionally and skillfully omitting Rudy's recently uncovered corruption scandals. Or shall I refresh your memory? Rudy is done my dear – say goodbye to him.

    December 6, 2007 12:41 am at 12:41 am |
  12. Marc, St. Louis , MO

    How can one say that even the Lord could not predict something? The Christian God is omniscient. He knows who will win the primary and who will be the next president. In fact, the Christian God is also omnipotent. Surely nothing will happen unless God wants it to happen.

    December 6, 2007 02:11 am at 2:11 am |
  13. Alice Newman Center Harbor NH

    just saw Preacher Mike's answer as to why he pardoned a rapist:

    1, He didn't have any influence (followed by a quote from the parole board member that Huckabee made an unusual personal request to let him out)

    2, Then he states that "no one could have known." Except that several victims wrote and spoke directly to him, warning that DuMond would rape again... and leave no witnesses.

    3. Mike's response: "I don't recall – I may have met with her."

    4. Then he whines: "This should not have been brought up during the campaign!"

    So again, we have a devout Christian, a minister, who pardoned a rapist for political reasons (the victim was a distant Clinton relation) then lies about how involved he was, and "does not recall" which is the typical GOP excuse – topping it all off that this is not the time for the truth.

    Apologies for the long post but we can not afford even four more years from so-called leaders like this ... who start off ethically challenged. They only get worse.

    December 6, 2007 04:33 am at 4:33 am |