If I were a South Carolina Republican voter on Saturday, then for parochial, tactical, and philosophical reasons, I would vote for Fred Thompson.
This doesn’t mean that I would not have voted for Mitt Romney in Michigan on Tuesday, if I were a Michigander, or that I would not vote for Rudy Giuliani in Florida later this month. Voting in each state, especially in a drawn-out nomination battle, involves particularly local considerations as well as national ones.
But for South Carolinians who are mainstream conservatives, those local considerations seem to cry out for a boost for Fred Thompson.
First, there is this purely parochial consideration: Not only is Thompson of a neighboring Southern state, but, more importantly, he gives South Carolinians a chance to set out a marker and decapitate the presidential electoral primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire. Think of it this way: In every Republican presidential contest beginning in 1980, South Carolina has chosen the winner… but, and this is a very big “but”… it always has been forced to choose from a field already narrowed by the two smaller, front-running states. In effect, South Carolina was told it could take the Iowa winner or the New Hampshire winner, but nobody else.
But this time could be different. This time South Carolina could drive a stake through the two-headed Dracula once and for all by choosing its own candidate to push to the fore. When New Hampshire saved George H.W. Bush’s candidacy in 1988, he publicly thanked the state a full nine months later when he won the general election, and New Hampshire enjoyed disproportionate influence during his presidency. If South Carolina chooses its own candidate this time, and he goes on to win, November’s final election night could hear that candidate say “Thank you, South Carolinaâ€ in front of all the world.
In this case, Fred Thompson is the man whose entire career rests on South Carolina, and he is the only one who would thus owe the state so much. Not only that, but the race is wide open for South Carolinians to lay down just such a marker. After three major contests so far, GOP voters have chosen three different winners in Mike Huckabee, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Why shouldn’t the Palmetto State make it four for four, especially for somebody who is the closest thing in the race to a native son?
For that reason, if I were a Rudy Giuliani man on Saturday, I would cast a tactical vote for Thompson, thus giving the former New York mayor a clear shot at Florida without a clear front-runner to overcome. I might even do the same if I were a Romney man seeing a Thompson surge in the state, figuring that one more loss by a suddenly shaky McCain or Huckabee in a state in which each was supposed to be strong might knock at least one of them out of the race and out of Romney’s hair. Tactically, it also makes sense for any mainstream conservative to want to give a boost to the most consistent conservative in the race, just to send a message to those who say the old Reagan coalition no longer has relevance. A win for Thompson on Saturday would tell the world that consistency across the full gamut of conservative issues still carries weight at the ballot box.
The final tactical consideration is the province of Evangelical, conservative Christians. It has now become increasingly clear, from exit polls, that Mike Huckabee has not effectively expanded his appeal beyond the Christian Right — not in Iowa, not in New Hampshire, not in an unexpectedly poor, momentum-killing vote performance in Michigan. Continued insistence on such a one-trick pony could easily have the effect of marginalizing the Christian Right, especially considering the phenomenal number of respected conservative leaders who have warned that a Huckabee win would mean disaster. A healthy Thompson campaign, on the other hand, gives pro-life, pro-Second Amendment voters another viable option. It is for good reason (Thompson’s solid record) that the National Right to Life Committee endorsed Thompson, and a discernibly strong move of Evangelicals to the Tennessean would give them a huge amount of influence in a Thompson presidency while realigning social conservatives with their brethren among economic- and strong-defense conservatives.
Next, and most importantly, we move to purely philosophical considerations. It is here that Fred Thompson shines. His voting record in eight years in the Senate was sterling. He often stood alone for the principle of federalism — “states’ rights,â€ correctly understood — a principle particularly appreciated by South Carolinians who want Washington to leave them alone on matters of economics and regulation. He had a 100 percent pro-life record. He stood tall against wasteful spending and high taxes. He pushed hard for high ethical standards and for efficient government reform. He’s the only candidate thoroughly trustworthy on judicial nominations. And he never wavered from a Reaganite position in favor of a strong defense and foreign policy.
Thompson’s campaign, meanwhile, has been the most specific and solidly conservative in its issue stances, with thoughtful and brave position papers on saving Social Security, cutting taxes, strengthening the military, and cutting spending. What George Will wrote of longshot presidential candidate Pete DuPont in 1988 applies to Thompson today: Of all the candidates in the race, he has shown “the highest substance-to-blather ratio.”
Granted, Fred Thompson stumbled out of the gate in this campaign. But for the past month he has fully hit his stride, and South Carolinians can reward him for deliberately timing his all-out run to really begin in their state.
One thing Fred Thompson has been right about all along is that these presidential campaigns start way too early. South Carolina can force the pundit class to slow things down in an intelligent way and let voters take a good, long time examining all the candidates, by keeping the solidly conservative Thompson alive in the race and keeping the entire outcome well up in the air. Iowans or Floridians might have other agendas, but Carolinians know the value of taking the time to get things right.