As if to prove Thomas Wolfe wrong, three top presidential contenders tried to go home again this week. Hillary Clinton traveled to Little Rock, Mitt Romney was in Utah and Boston, and Fred Thompson paid a quick visit to Nashville. Their trips drew different receptions from their hometown crowds – and spoke volumes about the unique challenges they face in 2008. It also raised some interesting questions: How do home towns define candidates? And what happens if they don’t have one?
Arkansas’ former first lady drew an enthusiastic showing last weekend in Little Rock, where she spoke to some 4,000 friends and Democratic loyalists and said, repeatedly, how happy she was to be back in the (red) state that launched her husband’s (and, arguably, her own) political career. “Arkansas runs deep in me today and always will,” said Clinton, who notably unaccompanied by that husband, entered the arena to a standing ovation and Jon Bon Jovi’s “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?”
It remains to be seen whether Clinton can. New York’s junior senator is not, of course, the woman from Hope. This time around, it’s John Edwards who benefits from a southern accent and inspiring life story. She may have a stronger Midwestern accent than Barack Obama. But as Obama made clear at his campaign kickoff in Springfield, Ill., the Land of Lincoln is clearly his turf. And, then there’s her adopted home state. To be sure, the recent frenzy over Mike Bloomberg’s possible run has put New York City back in the spotlight -- but more so as Rudy Giuliani’s hometown, not Clinton’s. That’s partly, of course, because Bloomberg and Giuliani have occupied the same office of mayor, but it also reinforces the relative lack of local ties Clinton has to the Big Apple. She even launched her presidential bid on the Internet, sidestepping the question of whether she’s from Chicago, Arkansas, Washington or New York.
For Clinton, the struggle to claim a unique connection to a specific town or state is a subtle but, to many folks, significant part of the overall challenge she faces as a national candidate. While she has built a strong lead in Democratic primary polls, she’s hindered by her difficulty conveying an authenticity that chronicles the genesis of her values. With that in mind, a solid bloc of voters say they’d never even consider voting for her.
Romney has a different dilemma; while he essentially can claim three states as home (Utah, Massachusetts and Michigan), each one poses challenges to his carefully manicured image.
He spent last Sunday raising money in Salt Lake City, where he attended college and returned to run the 2002 Winter Olympics. But his trips this year to Utah -- the second biggest source of his campaign’s first-quarter fundraising success, behind only California -- have been largely downplayed by aides who remain wary of highlighting his Mormon faith. Closing a second-quarter fundraising frenzy, he also spent time this week raising money in Boston. But that’s a town Romney hasn’t talked much about this year. If he wins the nomination (spoiler alert!) don’t be surprised if he starts dropping his R’s.
Romney, of course, launched his White House bid in Michigan, the swing state where he was born and grew up a governor’s son. But his decision to showcase his ties to a swing state he hadn’t lived in since he was 17 was roundly panned by campaign watchers who said it reinforced his image as a politician who, lacking a core set of values, is willing to refashion his identity to accommodate prevailing political winds.
And then there’s Thompson, who basked in the glow of “Run, Fred, Run!” adulation Tuesday while visiting his home state of Tennessee. A red pick-up truck parked nearby, Thompson laid his “aw shucks” drawl on thick and insisted, again, that he’s “never craved” the presidency but would, reluctantly, be willing to, y’know, accept the job, if that’s what the good people of America really think is best. But on the same day he visited (and raised money in) Nashville, U.S. News ran a story detailing the extensive work Thompson has done as a Washington lobbyist after leaving the Senate in 2002. Meanwhile, polls show that more than twice as many voters are familiar with Thompson as the denizen of yet another town: Hollywood.
Unlike Clinton and Romney, however, voters seem to buying Thompson’s ties to the South; a Mason-Dixon poll out last week shows he’s already shot to the top of the GOP field in South Carolina. A new Quinnipiac poll shows he’s pulled into second place in Florida, behind Giuliani.
Why does any of this matter? Because when voters can't use a home state to define a candidate, they do one of two things: They either fall back on what they already know about that person, which poses specific problems for Clinton as she struggles to re-define herself, or they rely on what other campaigns are saying about them, a serious challenge for Romney whose critics are trying to solidify his image as a flip-flopper before he has a real chance to build his national name ID levels.
Maybe you can’t go home, after all -- especially, it seems, if you don’t have a home to go to.