Politics & Government

Thompson plays well in South Carolina, but he's no slam-dunk

Actor and former congressman Fred Thompson is now running for president.
Actor and former congressman Fred Thompson is now running for president. Michael Hickey/MCT

BLUFFTON, S.C. — Fred Thompson was leaving the Sippin Cow Cafe on Wednesday in this coastal town, where out-of-state retirees put down roots every day, when Thomas Heyward, 65, a town councilman who lives in the same house he grew up in, pulled the candidate aside.

"I told him he's got to break out. He's got to do something spectacular," said Heyward, who supports Thompson's bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

South Carolina is a staunchly Republican state, and its traditional culture defines Deep South conservativism.

But the influx of northeastern retirees to the coastal "Low Country" and of younger transplants to growing upstate job centers such as Greenville is changing things. Combine the evolving demographics with a stronger-than-usual emphasis on national security and a near-obsession to beat Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton next year, and Republican loyalties are up for grabs in this important early primary state.

Heyward and many other natives are drawn to Thompson's Tennessee drawl and country-conservative image. Thompson seems like family — and that gives him an instant bond and trust that goes beyond policy platforms.

"But coastal South Carolina is about 60 percent transplants," Heyward said. "They moved from Ohio, New Jersey and New York, and they brought their culture with them. They brought prosperity to South Carolina, but they don't vote the way local South Carolinians do."

That's a reality Thompson now faces in a state he must win.

Thompson, who lags in Iowa and New Hampshire, led in an early October InsiderAdvantage poll of South Carolina Republicans, favored by 21 percent.

But former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon and former social liberal, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who supports abortion and gay rights, are still stubbornly in striking range of Thompson. Both scored 16 percent, as did Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

"Both Giuliani and Romney have general management experience over a lot of people. They've run things," said Doug Robertson, a former corporate executive who lived all over the United States before retiring to South Carolina.

Robertson, who remains undecided, asked Thompson at a rally, "How are you going to beat Hillary?"

Thompson told him: "I'm not fixated on Hillary or anybody else. I'm fixated on us, and our party and our candidacy and doing the right thing. And then it's up to the good Lord and the American people."

That didn't seal it for Robertson.

The lines are further blurred because McCain, hated by many of the state's religious conservatives, has strong support on the coast, and because former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, has a growing fan base. He scored a respectable 11 percent in the InsiderAdvantage poll.

"It's probably one of the most fluid environments I've ever seen," said South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson. "Our population's grown. It's in play."

South Carolina's estimated 4.3 million residents include about 689,000 — or 16 percent — who moved there from other states from 2000 to 2005, according to census and Internal Revenue Service data.

Of those new residents, one in five came from New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania or California. That's almost 140,000 people.

And of the state's 2.5 million registered voters, about one-fourth live in coastal Low Country counties popular with retirees, according to the state election commission.

The Palmetto State should be a slam-dunk for Thompson.

"If he can't win in South Carolina, it's hard to know where he could win," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster specializing in the South who's not affiliated with any presidential campaign.

David Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist, said he expects Thompson to win it. "Fred Thompson is the sentimental favorite," he said.

But Woodard said the victory margin may depend on the coastal vote, where "Thompson has to shore himself up."

At stops this week in Mt. Pleasant, Bluffton and the Sun City retirement community near Hilton Head, Thompson turned on his Southern charm — but also condensed his points about the importance of traditional family values and conservative federal judges.

He emphasized a commitment to low taxes and belt-tightening to keep Social Security and Medicare solvent. And he pledged to rein in illegal immigration, partly by denying federal funds to places such as New York City on Giuliani's watch, which gave undocumented residents sanctuary and access to services.

That pitch resonates around Hilton Head, where illegal immigrants flocked because of a construction and services boom and who are having an impact on schools and health care.

"It's good to be back in God's country, part of my old neighborhood," Thompson told a crowd this week at Alex's, a restaurant in Mt. Pleasant, near Charleston.

"Wow, he just comes out and says it like it is," said a smitten Mary Ann Roberts, a middle-aged registered nurse.

Tyler Melnick, 26, a Hilton Head attorney and South Carolina native, said he trusts Thompson as he could never trust Giuliani because "he's not a Southern candidate." Melnick recalled "the old saying: Never support anyone whose last name ends with a vowel."

But some natives said that while Thompson has their hearts, he may not get their votes.

"What I'm looking for is someone that can beat Hillary," said Jimmy Sinkler of Mt. Pleasant. "Right now, I think Giuliani might be the person. I'm not sure."

John Gardner, 52, a Charleston architect, said: "National security is most important. Since 9/11, it has been. I like Thompson a lot. If nothing changes, I'll vote for Giuliani because of his leadership in the war on terror."

Some South Carolina voters still don't know Thompson, who joined the race around Labor Day. In contrast, Romney, a multi-millionaire, has been campaigning hard for a year with visits to the state and television and radio ads.

Even if Thompson were to win South Carolina, analysts say that a close second place for Romney could be considered a victory if Romney wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan — a plausible scenario, because polls show Romney ahead in all three states.

Doris Cox of Columbia, a retired teacher who attended a Romney event this week, said she likes that Romney has always had the same wife — Thompson's had two, Giuliani, three — and that he has "good religious values, a family man."

What about Thompson?

"I don't know that much about him," she said.