The presidential candidate known as Fred moseys into Whiteford’s Giant Burger, possessing that La-Z-Boy manner and a fistful of conservative principles.
Applause washes over him and he smiles faintly at the crowd of 100 or so and tugs at his jacket. Then he folds his long frame into a short chair. Then he checks the knot in his tie.
Then he takes a few questions.
Fred D. Thompson, 65, is plying the comeback trail in South Carolina, his poll numbers showing a tease of life — he is, statistically speaking, tied for third in recent polls — and his country wit is growing more serrated. He has opened cuts in the flanks of two rivals, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, neither of whom he much cares for. But his campaign does not gallop; a gentlemanly canter is more to the point.
Keeping it steady is a favored phrase of Mr. Thompson’s, calling to mind a hunter whose hound has caught the scent of a particularly laid-back bear. The style plays well in the rural reaches of South Carolina.
“I’ve been criticized for not being et up with ambition,” Mr. Thompson says, biting his lip and peering into the crowd with that hooded stare. Then he shrugs. “I plead guilty to that.”
There are appreciative murmurs. Fred, as he is addressed here, is a well-known type, the courthouse Yoda dispensing wisdom on life and public affairs. He has thought about it all, he says, most times long before anyone else. “People haven’t been thinking about China,” Mr. Thompson says. He pauses. “Trust me, I have.”
They eat it up at Giant Burger. “How’d he do?” asked Arlie Merideth, tugging on his “Retired U.S. Army” cap and staring into a reporter’s eyes. “I say he was positively Reaganesque. You don’t want to disagree, do you?’
The reporter sees no percentage in doing that.
Mr. Thompson is good-old-boy sly. Asked a month ago to name his prized possession, he answered, “trophy wife.” His second wife, Jeri Kehn, is blonde, attractive and more than two decades his junior, and she has made very clear she has no desire to sit in on his cabinet meetings.
After a reclining fashion, he emits forceful opinions. He offers in that hickory-smoked baritone that the United States is “like the Soviet Union, spending ourselves into oblivion.” After the Berlin Wall fell, he says, we let our military defenses “take a holiday from history.”
As for national health care, man, he’s disgusted. “We know what is going on in England, waiting in lines for months for radiation treatments. And Canada and the like — —”
His voice trails off. Why waste his breath? “All of these things are on my Web site, Fred08.”
The last letters of candidates’ nouns, verbs and adjectives are endangered here. A fellow can hail from Chicago or Massachusetts and within hours of arrival in South Carolina he’s talkin’ about yellin’, tellin’ and winnin’. Mr. Thompson, Tennessee bred, does this better than most, even if he now lives in the gilded hollow of McLean, Va.
Once upon a time, in June 2007, Mr. Thompson, a former senator and actor, and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, stood as the It Men of the Republican presidential circuit. Conservative pundits and bloggers could not stop talking about Mr. Thompson’s strengths, not least his 100 percent rating from almost any organization with conservative in its name.
“He’s the six-million-pound gorilla,” Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist, exclaimed on Fox TV. “His awareness-to-support ratio was just off the chart.”
Cranking up the energy
But Mr. Thompson’s awareness-to-actual-votes-garnered ratio has not been too hot. He waited so long to officially join the race that an editorial writer for The State, in Columbia, S.C., took to calling him “a hound-dog-faced Godot.”
His campaigner’s wit was barnacled. His town halls in Iowa left voters worried he was a somnambulist. He finished third there and took seventh in New Hampshire (with 1 percent of the vote). He more or less skipped the Michigan primary, where he finished fifth, and repaired to South Carolina, proclaiming it his stockade.
He has cranked up his energy here, talking of protecting rights that come not from government but “from God.” Recent polls show him trailing Senator John McCain of Arizona and Mr. Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, and tied for third place with Mr. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
What happens if he pulls up short in Saturday’s primary? His manner suggests a loss for the nation.
“I was back home having earned a Ph.D. in Washington, D.C.,” he tells a crowd at the Golden Corral restaurant in Rock Hill. “I swore I’d never do that again. But I hitched up my horse.”
He stuffs his hands in the pockets of his blue slacks as he talks. During rumination breaks, he will hike up on his heels and lean that considerable and wrinkled cranium toward the crowd.
“Candidates talk change, change, change.” He hopes everyone comprehends this inanity. “It would be a good change to tell the truth.”
Amen! Tell the truth, Fred! Amen!
It would appear that Mr. Thompson has started a fire. But that impression is mitigated when one notices that the fellow exclaiming is a campaign worker.
In Laurens, a radio host moderates Mr. Thompson’s meeting. The host decides to walk about the room, the better to reach voters. Mr. Thompson remains seated.
Tough sell for younger voters
Still, he dishes corn pone with a master’s touch. “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig”; “that dog don’t hunt”; Congressional efforts to give amnesty to illegal immigrants are “like selling a horse twice.” Then he talks about his “mama.”
This talk, and a detailed tax cut plan, play well with older voters. Younger types worry that “Fred” seems old and kind of under-energized.
“I picked up on the arrogance,” said Tommy More. “I like to think a president will think about issues and not just be ironclad.”
Mr. Thompson is celebrity squared, a candidate and an actor. He signs autographs for 15 minutes at Giant Burger: a “Law & Order” cap, a DVD of an old movie. A home-schooling mother asks for a photo; he obliges. A veteran bends his ear on Iraq. Got to go, he says.
Mr. Thompson steps into the cool darkness of his Fred08-mobile, and the engine fires up. “We need a strong conservative president, Fred,” the veteran shouts to him. Mr. Thompson turns around and stares at him, almost blank. “Well, I think I’m your guy,” he says.
And the door closes and two kids wave and that Dierks Bentley campaign theme music keeps looping at Giant Burger: “So I keep rollin’ like an old banjo. Free and easy down the road I go.”