Who will run to back Fred Thompson if he comes to S.C.?

June 3, 2007 

By Brad Warthen

Editorial Page Editor

STATE SEN. Larry Grooms looked like a very influential man Thursday. On Wednesday, he had led a small band of Republicans in calling on Fred Thompson — the lawyer, lobbyist, star of screens both large and small and former U.S. senator from Tennessee — to run for president.

The next day, the lead story in USA Today said “the former Tennessee senator not only makes it clear that he plans to run, he describes how he aims to do it. He’s planning a campaign that will use blogs, video posts and other Internet innovations to reach voters repelled by politics-as-usual in both parties.”

But beyond cliches and pizzazz, what attracts some Republicans to Mr. Thompson?

Specifically, what causes somebody like Larry Grooms to reject John McCain — whom he and a lot of others had seen as the alternative to “politics-as-usual” not so long ago?

“I like Fred Thompson better,” said Mr. Grooms.

OK, but why — particularly when you consider that he first met ex-Sen. Thompson in 2000 on the “Straight-Talk Express,” both of them supporting Sen. McCain in his doomed S.C. campaign against George W. Bush?

What’s Fred Thompson got that the other 10 or 11 lack? Mr. Grooms had a very unwonkish answer to that: “He commands respect when he walks in a room.”

In what way? “It might be that he’s very tall or large, but he bears that well.” Also, “When I rode the bus with him campaigning for McCain, he seemed to be the same man in front of crowds and in person.”

Turning more to substance, he said the Tennessean was a solid conservative: “I don’t see a single issue where he’s wavered.”

He suggested Sen. McCain and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham have lost support by striking deals with Democrats.

“You can’t ignore the other side, but you have to deliver,” Sen. Grooms said — meaning “deliver” in pleasing the base rather than necessarily passing legislation.

He said a President Thompson would be tough on immigration, promote limited government and lower taxes and be “an effective commander in chief.”

On that last point, wouldn’t a President McCain also qualify? Certainly — so would Rudy Giuliani, but on social issues, forget it.

And McCain suffers from “guilt by association” with Ted Kennedy and Dianne Feinstein on immigration.

Mr. Grooms says there are others out there like him — or there will be: “There are some people with McCain right now who say as soon as Fred makes his move, I’m with him.”

He said some are waiting to meet the man. Sen. Grooms, for one, has interviewed all the GOP candidates (it helps that they’ve actually been here, unlike Mr. Thompson, whom I haven’t seen since 2000).

But Bob McAlister — a paid consultant to the McCain campaign — says the Grooms position is rare, among both McCainiacs from 2000 and those who were for rival Bush back then. (Mr. McAlister, former chief of staff to the late Gov. Carroll Campbell, is of the latter category.)

“John McCain has far more Bushies supporting him than Fred Thompson will ever have (former) John McCain supporters supporting him,” Mr. McAlister said. He might have a lot of media flash, but Mr. McAlister believes in the McCain ground game. “John McCain has locked down the human infrastructure that propelled George Bush to victory in 2000.”

Another McCain consultant, Richard Quinn, says that while Mr. Thompson will be “the flavor of the month for a while,” McCain’s polling has remained steady, without “spikes and falls,” and he expects it to remain that way.

“Larry is a good friend, and I met Senator Thompson in 2000 as well. I like him. He’s a very engaging person,” he said. But “I feel very comfortable about where John McCain is in South Carolina.”

(Mr. Quinn had called specifically to dismiss the Winthrop University poll, which showed Rudy Giuliani edging out Sen. McCain, as an indicator of what will happen. Nothing against Winthrop — “I love college professors” — but it was based on random calling, with only about 260 self-identified likely Republican voters. For predictions, he prefers something based on actual regular GOP primary voters, such as the poll released last week by American Research Group, which showed a 9-point McCain lead.)

He stresses two strong points: Sen. McCain is “the most consistently conservative candidate who can win in November,” and the “best qualified to lead our nation in the war on terror.”

But what about someone who isn’t paid to say those things? Former Richland County Councilman Jim Tuten worked in the McCain campaign in 2000, and he’s still on board. As for some of the conservatives who are mad at him or Sen. Graham (“a great statesman” according to Mr. Tuten) over immigration or some other issue, “A lot of people who state those positions don’t really understand those issues or have any background on those issues.” Besides, as he learned on County Council, in order to govern, “You have to give a little to get a little.”

True. Unfortunately for Sen. McCain, primaries are seldom about governing. Still, whom does a Thompson candidacy hurt — Sen. McCain, whom many avowed “conservatives” already reject, or the rivals who seek to take advantage of that, such as Mitt Romney? I’m thinking the latter.

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