More than any other forum, this debate in South Carolina revealed the growing divisions in the Republican party and highlighted the extraordinarily difficult task that confronts the future nominee.
Here is the conumdrum facing the GOP; an awakened social conservative wing whose emergence frightens the Republican establishment and the smaller but influential libertarian conservative faction. A fiscal conservative wing of the party, bruised and battered by 8 years of non-conservative governance supporting McCain and Romney mostly by default given the alternative offered of big government conservative Huckabee. And foreign policy hawks – neocons as well as traditional conservatives – who like McCain but dislike his immigration stand.
Romney is the only frontrunner who can lay claim to even partially bridging the gaps in the old GOP coalition that has brought Republicans victory so often for the last 30 years. But social conservatives don’t trust his recent conversions to their anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage cause while others simply view him as too canned, too packaged – not “authentic” enough to lead.
Is it any wonder that many conservatives of all stripes have looked at Fred Thompson as the only viable candidate who could pull the factions together? And many of us have waited for months for Fred to stand up and accept the challenge to bring the coalition back from the dead.
I have been critical of Thompson in the past (who hasn’t) for running an unfocused campaign. But tonight, he was magnificent. When Fred talks about the future of the party he becomes animated, passionate, and most importantly, makes good sense. His answers to almost every question were thoughtful, measured, and exuded a competence that only perhaps Mitt Romney has ever matched. Here is a serious man thinking deeply about serious issues. No half cocked chest beating on foreign policy questions like those given by Huckabee. No talking points economic blather like that given by Mitt Romney. Fred’s answers penetrated to the heart of the matter and revealed rather than obscured his positions.
Is it too late for Fred? Judging by the Luntz focus group who gave Fred an overwhelming victory in the debate it may be premature to say he is too far behind and doesn’t have enough time to rally. But there is no doubt it will be an uphill climb. Money is tight. The perception is constantly being fed by the media that Fred is through. The conventional wisdom says that Thompson doesn’t have the heart or desire to be in it for the long haul.
I would only say in response that in my 35 years of watching politics, I have never seen a race so wide open. There is no front runner. Any one of 5 candidates can still compete for the prize. To dismiss any one of them is foolhardy.
And given that Fred has been left for dead, a victory in South Carolina – so radically unexpected and shocking – could very well propel Thompson into Florida and Super Tuesday beyond with enough momentum for him to emerge on February 6 as one of the two candidates with a chance at the nomination.