Thompson looked better in theory

Before he even had a campaign, he was hot in Florida. He fell quickly.

By JOHN FRANK, Times Staff Writer
Published November 20, 2007

PENSACOLA - Presidential candidate Fred Thompson returned to Florida last week for a campaign rally in this military city at a time when his campaign needs to rally.

Standing in front of six American flags, with his back to the waterfront, the Republican told the crowd exactly what they wanted to hear - stronger military, more defense spending - and not much else.

The meager crowd, no more than 100, waited in the cool bright morning for twice as long as the speech itself lasted. Just feet from the stage, along the ledge of the pier, a blowfish rotted in the sun.

The parallels to Thompson's campaign in Florida are inescapable. For the first time, he arrived in Florida not as a promising upstart but at the back of the GOP pack, with a campaign badly needing some life.

In a recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 statewide poll, the former Tennessee senator slumped to fifth place, with 8 percent of the vote. With margin of error he remains in the hunt for third, but it's still a significant slide from six months earlier, when a similar Times poll ranked him second, within spitting distance of front-runner Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York.

A Mason-Dixon survey in Florida released last week reaffirmed the downward trend, showing Thompson falling 11 points to third place. Recent numbers from Iowa and New Hampshire showed him in the single digits.

"Unless Thompson does something to breathe life into his campaign, you won't be asking questions about him in six weeks," said Tom Eldon, a Florida pollster who conducted the Times survey, which was done with the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post.

David Johnson, a GOP strategist not affiliated with any campaign, said Thompson continues to be dogged by his inability to connect to voters on the campaign trial, as well as the perception that he doesn't have the desire to win.

"I was very surprised he had fallen that far off the pace (in Florida)," said Johnson, a former state GOP executive director. "He's going to have to put more fire and a little more oomph in there."

What hurts most: Florida is a vital element of Thompson's strategy for victory, which has him relying on his Southern roots to win a big state like Florida rather than take the traditional approach of focusing on early states such as New Hampshire.

The numbers appear to confirm that Republicans liked the idea of a Thompson campaign more than the actual thing.

Panhandle is key

Thompson's campaign dismisses the polls, saying it's still early.

"There's nothing in that poll that concerns us," said Andy Palmer, a former Florida GOP leader advising the campaign. "I think he is just starting to hit his stride."

If Thompson can turn it around, experts say, he came to the right place Friday. To win, the small-town native with working-class roots needs the support of voters in this conservative region known as the Bible Belt of Florida. The day after Thompson's appearance, grass roots organizers in Escambia County manned a phone bank and distributed campaign materials at a nearby gun show.

"I think a lot will change between now and Election Day," said Clay Ingram, the Republican chairman in Escambia County and a Thompson supporter. "I know for sure around here this will give him a huge bump."

In May, before Thompson had even entered the race, the Panhandle represented the backbone of his support. The Times poll then showed him stronger in that region that any other, solidly in third behind Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

But six months later - after a staff shakeup, panned campaign announcement, news he lobbied for an abortion rights group and an overall lackluster campaign - Thompson has fallen from grace. The Panhandle is now his second-weakest region, with only 6 percent of voters there supporting him.

"I hope Fred didn't get started too late, as this turnout suggests," said Buck Mitchell, as he surveyed the crowd at the rally in his native Pensacola.

Conservative platform

As he falters, Thompson finds himself muddled in the pack of second-tier candidates, just as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is gaining ground. The two Southern natives appeal to the same constituency of social conservatives and evangelicals, said Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics from Emory University.

"He ought to have a head start," Black said of Huckabee, a Baptist minister. "That is his natural constituency."

This is the debate in the mind of Pensacola resident Chris Cain and other voters who are still trying to determine who is the true conservative alternative to the moderate Giuliani.

"I like what I heard Fred say," said Cain, a 37-year-old software developer. "But I haven't made up my mind yet."

Thompson operatives, such as national pollster John McLaughlin, put hope in the former Law & Order star's second-place standing in some national polls and the recent endorsement from the National Right to Life Committee, a powerful antiabortion group.

The endorsement brought Julia Whiting, 69, to the Pensacola rally. She had never attended a political function before. "The National Right to Life endorsement - that was the deciding factor for me," she said.

Same goes for Barbara Turner, a 76-year-old retiree originally from New York. "I love Giuliani, but Giuliani is wishy-washy about the abortion issue and that's the prime issue of my life."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.