SENECA, S.C. — As Fred Thompson pins his hopes for the presidency on South Carolina's primary, he's won support for his conservative credentials while struggling with voters' doubts about whether he can win in November.
Thompson has more at stake Saturday — when voters head to the polls for the first primary in the South — than any of his Republican rivals. After finishing third in Iowa, he got 1 percent of the vote in New Hampshire and 4 percent in Michigan.
He acknowledges that he must finish strong in South Carolina: "South Carolina is where it's at for me."
The former Tennessee senator has been more aggressive when lobbying his fellow Southerners than he was in the previous contests. He touts his endorsements from anti-abortion groups, his consistent push to crack down on illegal immigration, his pledge to bolster the military and his vow to appoint conservative judges.
"There are some folks who kind of think the Reagan revolution is dead," he said at a rally Thursday in Prosperity, S.C. "I reject that.
"We're not going to defeat the Democrats in November by being more like them."
He's also has been more willing to jab at opponents for being softer on illegal immigration, particularly former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who's vying for the same conservative supporters.
"I was walking the walk," Thompson says, "before they were talking the talk."
He says he's the only candidate who's climbing in the polls, while the others sink or stay flat. Most surveys still show him running third or fourth; a McClatchy-MSNBC poll released Thursday showed him fourth, with 13 percent.
The Prosperity event persuaded Curtis Thevalier, 53, to support Thompson over Huckabee.
"I like his frank approach," said Thevalier, a retired electronics technician. "America doesn't need to be sugarcoated. We just need to be told what we need to do to better our country."
Overflow crowds filled two more campaign stops Friday. Elaine Masceri said in Seneca that Thompson had her vote.
"It seems that other candidates change their votes to accommodate what people want," said the 52-year-old retired manager of a hardware business. "Nobody that I heard during the debates ever questioned Fred's position."
But Masceri's husband, Gregg, acknowledged concerns: "He started too late." Thompson didn't enter the race until September.
Voters such as Bob Skipp, John Wilson and Dan Gryder were leaning Friday morning toward voting for John McCain on when they came to hear Thompson in Seneca. The three retirees liked Thompson's platform, but thought the Arizona senator had a better chance of winning in November.
After hearing Thompson, they were more convinced he can't win.
"He needs to get some fire in the belly," Gryder said.
Thompson said he'd go to Tennessee to visit his mother after Saturday's vote. He declined to discuss where his campaign would travel or which of the more than 20 states that vote Feb. 5 give him the best chance.
He said he'd overcome long odds to win his first election. He expects similar results in South Carolina.
"We're going to shock the world on Saturday."
(Smolowitz reports for The Charlotte Observer.)