Crack in Thompson's Southern Strategy
It was not two months ago that Fred Thompson tantalized a crowd of more than 400 Virginia Republicans at a state GOP party fundraiser in Richmond, laying out his conservative principles for the first time after making his first official filing toward a presidential campaign. "Folks, we're a bit down politically right now, but I think we're on the comeback trail, and it's going to start right here," rumbled the actor and former Tennessee senator, to loud applause. For good measure, he threw in some Southern quips and references, to remind the crowd that he, unlike the other leading GOP candidates, hailed from Dixie. At that moment, the support of Virginia Republicans seemed his for the taking.
It hasn't exactly worked out that way for Thompson in the state, a letdown that could be seen as emblematic of Thompson's troubles in taking flight nationally. This morning, the state's top ranking Republican elected official, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, will endorse Mitt Romney at a press conference in Richmond The endorsement is a coup for the former Massachusetts governor, who is eager to show that he is viable in the South despite languishing in the polls in South Carolina, where the first Southern primary votes will be cast. Tonight, Romney heads over to Virginia Beach for a fundraising dinner. As notable as the endorsement, perhaps, is that Romney's fundraising in Virginia did not fall off a cliff with Thompson's entrance onto the stage -- Romney collected $308,000 in the state in the quarter ending June 30, compared with about $466,000 in the first quarter, a dropoff more or less in line with Romney's fundraising pace nationally over the first half of the year. Likewise, Rudy Giuliani collected $300,000 in the state in the second quarter, on top of about $438,000 in the first quarter.
Thompson, meanwhile, is expected to report today that he collected slightly more than $3 million in June, less than the $5 million his fledgling operation was hoping to raise. He has pushed back the likely date of his official announcement from July to September. Even before launching his official campaign, he has endured a staff shakeup that saw the departure of several aides. And sources familiar with the campaign say fundraising has tailed off in recent weeks.
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said Bolling's endorsement, like others Romney has received, was a result of Republicans' appreciation of Romney's vigorous pursuit of the nomination -- a remark that one could take as a comment on perceptions that Thompson has been less than dogged in getting his own campaign underway. "One of the things that draws people to our campaign is that we've been very aggressively organizing on the ground since January. The governor's been working like crazy since January 4," when he formed his exploratory committee, said Madden. "He's going to do everything to build the organization you need to get to next January."
Among those attending Thompson's big kickoff speech in Richmond was Donald Ledwig, a former president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and chairman of the Alexandria Electoral Board. At the time, Ledwig said he was intrigued by Thompson's arrival on the scene. But now, he's leaning more and more toward Romney, saying his experience as governor and as a business executive, combined with his picture-perfect family, makes him an ideal Republican candidate. He predicted that Romney would exceed expectations in Virginia, even if he has to overcome anti-Mormon bias among some evangelical voters. After all, the fastest-growing part of the state is Northern Virginia, where Romney's business-friendly vibe might match or trump Thompson's Southern drawl (and where, as it happens, there is a greater concentration of Mormons than almost anywhere else on the East Coast.)
"He's the ideal candidate from central casting," said Ledwig. "It looks to me like Romney's the man that someone's going to have to beat."
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