OTTUMWA, Iowa -- Say what you want about Fred Thompson, but the man is not pandering.
At an event here at the Ottumwa Hotel this afternoon, Thompson called on a man in the front row who let out a huge cheer during his formal remarks, perhaps expecting a softball question. What Thompson got instead was a question from Mickey Hucks, Sr., who retired eight years ago from Deere & Co. and received notice in October that his health care plan would be changed in a way that will force him to pay more out of pocket. Hucks wanted Thompson's thoughts about a large company that would switch health care on its retirees.
"Well, I hate to see that," Thompson responded. But then he retorted, "What are your thoughts concerning what we can do about that as a federal government?"
Hucks was impressed. "Good comeback," he acknowledged.
Thompson went on to argue that the only responsibility of government is to support policies that would allow the free market to thrive, and as long as businesses are following the law and abiding by contracts the government should step aside so they can compete.
"And have record profits and never are satisfied?" Hucks followed up.
"Well, there's nothing wrong with record profits," Thompson shot back.
"Except when they're taken off the back of the worker that put you there," Hucks interjected.
Then Thompson implored him to "look at the whole picture" rather than one situation. "What I'm saying is that as a general rule, the President of the United States cannot sit there and make a case about what some company ought to do down in Houston, Texas, or somewhere like that," he said. "What a president can do is insist on lower taxes, less regulation, less interference, a decent Fed policy through appointment to the Federal Reserve Board, and things of that nature that will make for a good, free, viable, economy. And if companies do wrong in the free market place, they're usually punished by that same market."
I spoke with Hucks afterward, who said Thompson gave a "fine" answer and that he understands that the federal government has limited power in his circumstances.
"I'm going to support Senator Thompson, without a doubt," he told me. "I like his fundamental conservative thoughts on everything, especially that comment about high fences and a wide gate." That was a reference to Thompson's philosophy on immigration.
Hucks said he had also considered Mike Huckabee, but had issues with his record on immigration as governor. He dismissed Mitt Romney by saying Romney had switched his positions on several issues, so he doesn't trust him to maintain his current positions going forward.
Despite the endorsement of Hucks (and as happy as I was to see Thompson defend free market principles), I saw no evidence of a late Thompson surge that some were predicting following his excellent debate performance earlier this month. Though the event was standing room only, it would have been pathetic if it weren't, since it was held in a tiny room with just about 40 seats. Unlike Huckabee, who made a clear closing argument based on his populist appeal to the electorate, it wasn't obvious what Thompson was going for. He mentioned that conservative commentators universally praised his Social Security and tax proposals (and rightly so), but while a stronger candidate at this point in the race would have been able to have a tight explanation for what's so special about them, he referred the audience to his website and said he could answer any questions about them after his remarks for those who wanted more details. Then he went on to say that voters aren't going to vote for a proposal on Jan. 3, but for a leader. That's fine too, but it kind of undercuts any attempt to use his proposals to sell his candidacy. While Huckabee skillfully wove in references to Pella throughout his remarks this morning, Thompson didn't mention Ottumwa during the speech --even though the local newspaper endorsed him on Wednesday. There's only so much you can tell from one event, to be sure. But I would be surprised if, with less than a week to go, the man I saw this afternoon has a strong showing next Thursday.
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