In recent days, Fred Thompson has become increasingly aggressive as he tries to build his support in Iowa by taking it out of the Republican right flank, particularly from front-runners Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney.
There isn’t any evidence that it is working on typical Iowans — the latest Des Moines Register poll has him dropping to a fourth-place tie with Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
And he’s strapped for cash; he recently appealed to supporters to help him raise enough money to get television ads back up in Iowa.
But Thompson is trying to convince likely caucus-goers that he is the truest conservative.
The former senator from Tennessee has oriented his whole bus tour around marketing his right-wing credentials.
And it appears from campaign events that his remaining potential supporters are hard-core conservatives — people deciding between him and the two GOP front-runners, especially Huckabee.
Bill Salier, for example, served as Tom Tancredo’s state chairman before the Colorado congressman dropped out of the race.
A staunch conservative, Salier’s top two issues are abortion (he is strongly against abortion rights) and immigration (he wants to stem the influx of undocumented immigrants).
Tancredo, then, was a natural fit, and Salier committed to him before Thompson entered the race.
But when Tancredo dropped out and endorsed Mitt Romney, Salier didn’t follow.
To Salier's mind, the former Massachusetts governor was too soft on abortion and immigration, so he joined Thompson’s campaign.
Since then, he has been on the trail for Thompson in Iowa, introducing the candidate at a supporter’s house in Hampton on Sunday and at a radio town hall Monday morning in Charles City.
Despite recent polls, Salier contends that conservative voters who have flocked to Huckabee are beginning to shift toward Thompson as they become more familiar with Huckabee’s views.
“People are starting to recognize there’s some liberalism there, some populist statements,” Salier said about Huckabee.
Though he didn’t cite specific examples, he may have been alluding to aspects of Huckabee’s record that Thompson and other GOP candidates have criticized, such as the former Arkansas governor’s mixed record on taxes; his plan to allow children of undocumented immigrants to receive college scholarships in Arkansas; and his granting clemency to some convicts.
“You just sort of don’t get that sort of stuff from Thompson, and people are starting to move towards [Thompson],” Salier said.
All the leading Republicans have given conservatives reasons to question their ideological bona fides: Romney is seen as a flip-flopper on abortion; Huckabee has drawn fire for his education proposals and inmate pardons; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani still supports abortion rights; and Arizona Sen. John McCain pushed for campaign finance reform and opposes torture of terrorist suspects.
Thompson thus tries to make the case to right-wingers that he is the candidate they can trust on every issue — and he has built his stump speech to emphasize his conservative credentials.
It’s working with supporters such as Loras Schulte, who heard Thompson speak at a diner in Tama, Iowa, on Monday afternoon and cited his conservatism as the reason she will caucus for him.
That doesn’t mean they’ve written Huckabee off, however.
The typical attendee at a Thompson event is more likely to name Huckabee as a second-choice candidate than to name any other GOP contender.
Jo Hofferman, a professional anti-abortion activist who attended the Sunday night house party for Thompson, even offered that her dream ticket would be Thompson-Huckabee.
The overlap between their supporters is often highlighted when audience members ask Thompson whether he supports the so-called “fair tax,” a national sales tax plan tha Huckabee has made a signature campaign proposal.
Thompson typically demurs by pivoting to his own tax plan.
Like most mainstream Republicans, he advocates cutting taxes such as the corporate income tax but doesn’t go as far as Huckabee’s proposal.
“Frankly, I’m not really sure where that tax would kick in,” Thompson told Politico Monday morning, when asked about Huckabee’s plan.
“A lot of people think that the effective sales tax would be quite a bit higher than what some of its proponents think. Then you would wind up not only with the fair tax but you’d see the income tax come back.”
But he generally tries to sell his own tax cutting credentials and plans rather than criticizing his opponents’ specific records or plans.
Likewise, he emphasizes his conservative record without explicitly drawing contrasts with competitors.
He frequently says that he is “the same man I was in 1994,” when he first ran for Senate.
(Perhaps it’s no coincidence that was the same year Romney ran for Senate in Massachusetts as a supporter of abortion rights and gay rights.)
Thompson also invokes 1994 — when Republicans took control of Congress — to argue that Americans have not changed their political views since then, so as to reassure Republican primary voters that they needn’t choose a moderate to win the general election.
But if Huckabee puts a friendly face on a platform that features extremely conservative policies on social issues, immigration and taxes, Thompson presents its somber flip side.
He claims to have been motivated to join the race by fear that his children and grandchildren would grow up in a country dominated by liberal bogeymen like “judges who make law,” and a Democratic Party he says is dominated by its left wing.
Conservative credentials aside, Thompson’s great challenge lies in convincing voters that he can win a general election.
On Monday, two of his phone bankers at the campaign’s state headquarters in Urbandale, Iowa, were overheard commiserating about how many of the registered Republicans they call say that they like Thompson’s conservative views but that they doubt he has the energy to run a winning campaign.
They might consider themselves lucky that the voters they reached knew enough about Thompson to be aware of his reputation for laziness.
Earlier on Monday when a local farmer asked “How are you, Mr. Thompson?” in a diner in Allison, Iowa, Thompson joked, “You know who I am, so I’m making progress.”
Alas, the set-up to his punch line proved untrue.
When the farmer, Dean Knight, was asked why he liked Thompson, he replied, “because of all the good work he did as governor of Wisconsin and in the Bush administration.”
He was thinking, of course, of Tommy Thompson, who dropped out of the GOP race months ago.