Monday, January 14, 2008

MONCKS CORNER, S.C. — The hottest topic among South Carolina Republicans right now is the fire in Fred Thompson’s belly.

Unlike the other candidates who still are trying to convince voters of their philosophy and credentials, Mr. Thompson finds his biggest challenge is trying to convince voters he’s serious enough about his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. It’s a curious position for a candidate to be in — one where his supporters seem to want him to want it more than he does.

“Get rough, Fred, get rough,” shouted one woman at the beginning of a town-hall meeting Friday at Gilligan’s, a restaurant in Moncks Corner.

“South Carolina is yours for the asking,” Jerry Wolf, a retired government employee, told him during the question-and-answer period. “We’re asking you to step up to the plate and go for our hearts.”

Mr. Thompson, who is in the middle of a bus tour of South Carolina, is trying to do just that.

He needs to have a strong showing here after he took third place in Iowa’s caucuses with 13 percent of the vote, but trailed badly in New Hampshire, winning just 1 percent of the vote. He is ignoring Michigan’s primary tomorrow and directing all his efforts here — a place he tells voters he considers home territory, as a former senator from Tennessee.

Mr. Thompson tells his supporters he’s going to keep going at his own pace, and he continues to criticize the television ads and short debate answers that dominate the back-and-forth among the candidates.

“It didn’t used to be about ‘fire in the belly,’ ” he said.

As if to underscore the point, his answers to questions from the audience have grown longer, in some cases stretching upward of eight minutes.

But he is benefiting from his debate performances — both in Iowa, when he refused a show-of-hands question about global warming, and Thursday in South Carolina, where he took command. He seemed to knock the formerly unflappable Mike Huckabee — the man with whom he is in direct competition for votes here — off his game.

“I didn’t pick on Huckabee,” Mr. Thompson tells an audience at a restaurant in Surfside Beach, before picking on the former Arkansas governor again over a record that includes net tax increases, higher spending and calls for a nationwide public-smoking ban and for closing the terrorist-detention facility at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Mr. Thompson also takes issue with Mr. Huckabee’s populist stump speeches, which often include reference to his poor upbringing and jokes about having only used harsh Lava soap throughout his childhood because it was all his family could afford.

“I can out-poor-boy any of them,” Mr. Thompson said at Surfside Beach. “I grew up in more modest circumstances than anybody on that stage.”

But for Mr. Thompson, Mr. Huckabee provides the perfect foil to make his point — he leans back and balances his chair on two legs, takes the microphone out of its stand and says, “This is about the heart and soul of the Republican Party.”

His supporters noticed.

“He’s finally straightened up,” one shouted the morning after the debate as he waited to meet Mr. Thompson in Surfside Beach.

Mr. Thompson’s campaign says it has noticed a response in the campaign treasury, too — $300,000 raised online in the two days since the debate, and more than half of the contributors were first-time givers to the campaign.

Mr. Thompson’s awakening was noted by the Australian, a newspaper from Down Under, which headlined its article on Thursday’s debate: “Sleeping Bear Stirs to Maul Huckabee.”

Mr. Huckabee took a swipe at Mr. Thompson yesterday on CNN: “Fred Thompson talks about putting America first, and yet he’s the one who is a registered foreign agent, lobbied for foreign countries, was in a law firm that did lobbying work for Libya.”

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