Thompson Needs South Carolina Victory

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Jan 16, 2008 11:46 AM

Fred Thompson has to win South Carolina.  It's just that simple.  The good news for him is that he has some natural benefits coming into the state.  But will it be enough?

As part of my research on the Palmetto state, I'm making a few calls to South Carolina advisers and strategists.  This morning, I caught up with Walter Wetzel, a South Carolina strategist for Thompson. 

He tells me Fred benefits from getting to the state early.  As you may recall, Thompson arrived on the day of the New Hampshire Primary -- while several other candidates were in other states:

"We had several days in there where we had South Carolina to ourself.  We made tremendous progress during those days."
Wetzel also believes that Thompson will benefit from his southern background, telling me: 
"Thompson speaks the language of South Carolina, so he appeals across the geographic barriers other candidates are limited by."
While McCain has Sen. Lindsay Graham and Romney has Sen. Jim DeMint, Thompson's chairman is Rep. Gresham Barrett, an up-and-coming leader in the House who has been described as "Mike Pense-esque."

There is no doubt that Fred Thompson needs to win South Carolina on Saturday.  As I reported last week, on a blogger conference call, speaking of South Carolina, Thompson told us: 
“It’s like a homecoming in many respects ... It’s my neck of the woods … and my message is I’m the clear consistent conservative on the national scene that’s been there all along.”

... As for the polls which show him trailing McCain and Huckabee, Thompson discounts the media -- and points to how all the polls and pundits got New Hampshire wrong as evidence.  He is also already taking some shots at Mitt Romney, over his "misleading" promises in Michigan.

But there's another Southerner in the race, too.  Thompson's South Carolina Campaign Manager Dean Rice, a Thompson loyalist who worked for Thompson in '94 and '96, tells me that Mike Huckabee's campaign is desperate -- and that desperation has led them to run push-polls (in fact, the calls in question were most likely conducted by Common Sense Issues, an outside group I interviewed a while back).  Regarding Huckabee, Rice tells me:

"If you're weak on the issues that matter, you're left to start throwing mud -- and that's apparently what he's decided to do." 

Rice is optimistic about Thompson's chances on Saturday:
"Momentum is there.  Fred Thompson's the one with the momentum coming out of the debate.  ... I think we've had the fire marshall come out two or three times to say we had over-flow crowds."  He adds:  "People appreciate consistency in South Carolina."

For more on South Carolina, check out my recent interview with Romney's SC State Director.