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Insider Interview: Palmetto State Powerbrokers

For the half-dozen or so Republicans most-often mentioned as considering a White House run in 2008, Warren Tompkins, Heath Thompson and Terry Sullivan are very familiar names.

The three GOP operatives, who joined forces in the wake of the 2004 election, are perhaps THE most important, unaffiliated power brokers in the South Carolina presidential primary -- a contest that has picked the eventual Republican nominee in every election cycle since 1980.

The stable of GOP candidates contemplating a presidential bid in 2008 has clearly read up on history. Tompkins, who got his start in Palmetto politics as a field staffer for the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) and was close to GOP Govs. Carroll Campbell and David Beasley, said all the major players (or a high-level member of their campaign staffs) have already contacted him personally to ask for his backing, which he is currently withholding. Tompkins, 54, said the list of potential campaigns that has come courting includes those of Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), George Allen (Va.) and Bill Frist (Tenn.), as well as Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

The plan is for the newly minted consulting firm of Tompkins, Thompson and Sullivan to select a single candidate to work with in 2008 rather than splintering off, said Tompkins.  He added that unlike the 2000 cycle (when he approached Karl Rove and Joe Allbaugh in 1999 to tell them he would support George W. Bush's candidacy) he is "wide open" when it comes to choosing a candidate.

Thompson, 35, said the firm's three partners are in the "tire kicking" stage of picking a candidate.  "We are hearing from a lot of them," he said. "There's a lot of time left."  In the meantime, the firm has inked several statewide candidates for 2006, including state Sen. Greg Ryburg, a candidate for treasurer, and state education committee chair Bob Staton, who is running for superintendent of education. Sullivan, 31, is also serving as a consultant to the National Republican Senatorial Committee; Thompson is affiliated with Scott Howell & Associates, a leading Republican media consulting firm.

One thing that is crystal clear to all three men is the importance of South Carolina's early presidential primary, which traces its roots to 1980 as the brainchild of GOP operative and Palmetto State native son Lee Atwater, who wanted to give Ronald Reagan's candidacy an early boost. Reagan won the state in a blowout and went on to win the GOP nomination and the presidency.

Asked what separates the South Carolina primary from the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire that precede it, Tompkins responded that his state offers "a little bit of everything." Unlike the Iowa caucuses, which are "dominated by social conservatives," or the New Hampshire primary, which is "devoid of social conservatives," South Carolina "plays to the candidate who has the broadest appeal or support," according to Tompkins.  The Iowa caucuses are only open to registered Republicans; in New Hampshire, Republicans and independents can vote in the GOP primary, while South Carolina allows registered Democrats, Independents and Republicans to vote -- a so-called "open primary" system.

Thompson is more blunt. "The fundamental difference is we have a history of picking the winner," he says. "Lots of times we have to clean up the mess we inherit from the earlier states. We went through that with Bush in 2000."

Following John McCain's stunning victory in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, South Carolina -- and its generally conservative electorate -- was cast as a firewall against McCain's seeming momentum. Both Bush and McCain trolled relentlessly for votes in the state, and the Bush campaign, recognizing that South Carolina was a must-win, pulled out all the stops. Despite winning comfortable margins among Democrats and Independents, McCain was swamped among Republicans, who helped give Bush a 53 percent to 42 percent overall victory. McCain's campaign never recovered.

Heading into 2008, little has changed. Although McCain is now the frontrunner for the nomination, he still must prove he can carry a conservative-minded state. If McCain follows his blueprint from 2000 -- skip the Iowa caucuses and win the New Hampshire primary -- South Carolina will again be the gauntlet he must run in order to win the nomination.

Many of the in-state operatives who were with McCain in 2000 have already signed on for a 2008 bid, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) and consultant Richard Quinn.

"McCain comes in with certain advantages," said Thompson. "He knows a lot of people. He also knows the people that helped beat him."

In 2000, Thompson and Tompkins were high-ranking members of the Bush team in the state; Sullivan supported wealthy businessman Steve Forbes early on before eventually switching to Bush. Given that history (and the fact McCain already has much of his South Carolina political team in place), Sullivan said the chances are slim that his firm will be with the Arizona senator come 2008. "I learned early on in politics to never say never," said Sullivan. "Stranger things have happened, I just can't think of any."

For now, the three men seem content to wait out the 2006 election to see which of the GOP presidential candidates emerges as the alternative to McCain. Tompkins believes that the results of November's midterms will serve to clarify the choice for his firm. "How the elections turn out could cause a shift in our thought process as to what kind of candidate we are looking for," he said.

The men-who-would-be-president will eagerly await that decision.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 17, 2006; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Insider Interview  
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After the hell those three put Sen. McCain through in 2000... Does anyone honestly think for a second that he would give the New Palmetto Triumvirate, (Tompkins, Thompson, Sullivan) a shot in 08?

Last time I checked, the most prized attribute in politics was LOYALTY. Loyalty to Party, to Ideology, and most importantly to the CANDIDATE.

When you are driven by the almighty $ Retainer $, or your insatiable need to win, loyalty seems to fly out the window.

As I understand Sen. John McCain and his staff are not stupid men. In fact they are quite good at what they do.

I will concede, Tompkins, Thompson & Sullivan have had unbelievable records & that is to be commended.

But we reap what we sew Gentlemen... That streak dies in 2008.

Posted by: Sammy "The Bull" Gravano | January 20, 2006 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Warren Tompkins, Heath Thompson and Terry Sullivan will support Senator George Allen in 2008. A good reporter would have uncovered this well-known fact.

Posted by: Make some news... | January 19, 2006 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Flimsey Graham is just bucking for the VP spot. I heard a quote one time that the "McCain's straight talk express left South Carolina with a blown engine and four flat tires."

McCain will lose South Carolina. My money is on Sen. George Allen.

Posted by: Bush wins! | January 18, 2006 9:13 AM | Report abuse

Who needs honest leadership that brings cooperation and teamwork which further leads to improved economic future, improvement in education, better jobs, real security, general positive welfare and uplift of the citizenry (i.e. governance toward hope for all of us rabble working humps out here in flyover territory) when we can have a perpetual knife fight campaign mentality choreographed from Columbia (or DC) with tinpot kingmakers who only think of whipping us rabble in line with their tiresome propaganda and spin while keeping their own job security tightly controlled? We don't need no stinkin' democracy "of, by and for the people" when we can have a...whatchacallit...oh yeah, a "plantation".

Posted by: small d democrat | January 18, 2006 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Tompkins and Sullivan are legends unto themselves.

Posted by: rrrriiiggghhhttt | January 18, 2006 7:50 AM | Report abuse

It is estimated that Thurmond received 20% of the African-American vote the last time he ran for office. Better than any other statewide Republican candidate.

You didn't clarify which Southern Strategy you were talking about. You might be referring to the one where Southern Democrats enacted Jim Crow laws to divide lower income whites and blacks after Reconstruction. Don't forget, all Jim Crow and other laws enacted to disenfranchise African-Americans weren't passed by Republicans, but by Democrats.

And, Governor Sanford has said if he had the statutory authority to lower state flags, he would have done so for Rosa Parks. And when the General Assembly passes a bill this session, the Governor said he will sign it and order the flags lowered in honor of Rosa Parks.

Posted by: TruthTeller | January 17, 2006 8:47 PM | Report abuse

"Before you label the entire Republican Party in South Carolina as racist, try to read a little history next time."

What history would that be?

Strom Thurmond?

The Southern stratgey?

The Governor's refusal to lower the flag for Rosa Parks?

Posted by: The Real Truth Teller | January 17, 2006 8:21 PM | Report abuse

To Peter L. and Intrepid Liberal:

Your characterization of the South Carolina Republican Party bears no resemblance to reality or history. Let's take just one example.

In the 2000 Presidential Primary, the issue of the Confederate Flag flying above the State House was a significant issue in the race.

Equally significant is how it got there.

In 1962 the General Assembly, at the time completely dominated by Democrats, and Democratic Governor Ernest "Fritz" Hollings passed a bill to put the flag on top of the dome. This is the same Fritz Hollings who when running for President in 1984 said, "Blacks have their place in our party." Talk about inclusive.

It wasn't until 1996 when Republican Governor David Beasley called for it to be removed. Gov. Beasley lost his re-election bid largely over this issue. Finally, a Republican Speaker of the House, David Wilkins, made a bold move and passed a bill in 2000 to bring it down. It nearly cost him his speakership, but he used his political will and the bill eventually prevailed.

Before you label the entire Republican Party in South Carolina as racist, try to read a little history next time.

Posted by: TruthTeller | January 17, 2006 8:00 PM | Report abuse

Just for the record, I most closely identify with the Tompkins group, and while I have never met Mr. Tompkins, it would be an honor to do so!

Posted by: PalmettoNeocon | January 17, 2006 6:43 PM | Report abuse

Just for the record, I most closely identify with the Tompkins group, and while I have never met Mr. Tompkins, it would be an honor to do so!

Posted by: PalmettoNeocon | January 17, 2006 6:42 PM | Report abuse

...And this is why South Carolina will always been seen as an embarassment of a state. The state's politics is nothing more than the typical suspects (monkeys) throwing excrement at one another. These are fellow GOPers sniping at one another. South Carolina's chief export is fraticide. Goes all the way back to the Civil War. Apparently they never got over that so they never learned Reagan's old adage of party cooperation. The bottom line is that the voters/taxpayers (hey, remember us?!) once again get shortchanged with this sort of meaninglessness while the boys debate the supremacy of...uh...their equipment. (Not impressed.) Meanwhile the state's economy is in the toilet thanks to both Sanford and DeMint--and the rest of you clowns. Thanks, chumps. Go back to swinging from your 19th century palmettos while the rest of us get into the 21st century. You are way past being amusing any more.
An ex-South Carolinian.

Posted by: fed up from SC | January 17, 2006 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Folks, truth be known one of the three was involved in the Primary that you speak of. And you (I guess you're including yourself as one of the "kids in the basement") did win that race. However Heath Thompson, whom you're refering to, has done alright for himself. (At least he hasn't been fired from his job as spokesman for the Governor of SC after being convicted of abusing his girlfriend like you have.) He helped get the President relected. And the last time these three worked together they elected a virtually unknown Congressman beating a former Governor in the primary by 19 points. We now call him Senator Jim DeMint! I'm embarrased for you Mr. Folks that you are so obviosly jealous and bitter about your own situation thus feeling the need to tear down others.

Posted by: MGreeninSC | January 17, 2006 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Folks, Did you say something???

Ex-Sanford spokesman Folks charged with disorderly conduct

Police report says he 'became loud and boisterous' toward ex-fiancee last month


Will Folks, former spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford, has been charged with disorderly conduct in connection with a Dec. 13 incident involving his ex-fiancee, authorities said.
A warrant has been issued for Folks, but has not been served because no address for him was available, said Sgt. Florence McCants of the Columbia Police Department.
According to an incident report filed with the Columbia police Dec. 13, Folks "became loud and boisterous" toward Ashley Joy Smith of West Columbia and yelled profanities at her during an incident at 11:40 p.m. at The Back Porch restaurant at 1610 Gervais St.
Smith called police at 12:39 a.m. Dec. 14, according to the incident report.
In September, Folks pleaded guilty to criminal domestic violence charges as part of an agreement with prosecutors in connection with a July 2005 incident that also involved Smith.
In that incident, Folks was charged with kicking open the door to a home he and Smith shared and shoving her into a piece of furniture.
Smith had a restraining order against Folks in July.
Neither Folks nor Smith would comment Tuesday night. She referred questions to her attorney, David Haller of Charleston, who also would not comment. Folks' attorney could not be reached for comment.

Posted by: hmmmm... | January 17, 2006 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Great article Chris! I am anxious to see who these guys pick in 08!

Posted by: anxious | January 17, 2006 5:18 PM | Report abuse

The last time the Tompkins-Thompson-Sullivan crowd tried the same SC full-frontal assault that buried McCain in 2000, they got their rear ends handed to them by a virtually unknown former Congressmen with a staff of kids working out of his basement. For the record, it was 60-40.

What is past is prologue.

Posted by: Will Folks | January 17, 2006 4:51 PM | Report abuse

I agree that The Fix should not have glossed over Bush's smear campaign in SC, and I also agree that it's outrageous to accuse McCain of having fathered a black baby -- especially considering that baby was adopted in one of many acts that show McCain's compassion. At the same time, a good presidential campaign team should have hammered Bush with that attack until it buried him, just like Kerry would have done with the Swiftboat attacks if he had half a spine. If you get brought down by something that dumb, you deserved it.

Posted by: Alex | January 17, 2006 4:06 PM | Report abuse

"McCain's campaign never recovered."??

Well, he recovered enough to win Michigan handily the following week.

It was the Commonwealth of Virginia that proved to be the final firewall for President Bush.

Posted by: VictoryInVA | January 17, 2006 3:14 PM | Report abuse

South Carolina's 2008 GOP primary will undoubtedly have the same kind of dirty tricks that were played by Bush against McCain in 2000 and by Carroll Campbell against Max Heller, in the general election that sent Campbell to Congress in 1978. The ghost of Lee Atwater still shows up in this state when elections occur.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 17, 2006 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Nice Job. As a blogger on SC GOP Politics I have often blogged about the Political Consultants. However for Tompkins and crew to suggest that McCain contacted them is pure malarky. McCain's man in SC is Richard Quinn. Google him.

Posted by: PalmettoNeocon | January 17, 2006 1:11 PM | Report abuse

I was a 17 year old volunteer for Harry Truman in 1948 and witnessed a very racist campaign which produced Strom Thurmond and the States Rights Party. And, eventually, the racists took control of the Republican Party which dominates South Carolina politics today.

Posted by: Peter L. | January 17, 2006 12:26 PM | Report abuse

The dirty tricks that passed as campaign tactics on behalf of the Bushes can hardly be written off as "pulled out all the stops". It was the first time I saw the lowdown scurrilous pattern that has marked this administration since then.

Posted by: Rob | January 17, 2006 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Many thanks to Mr. Clizza for a good, informative and forward looking piece.
For those of us unfamilar with the intricacies of current Palmetto State GOP politics this was a good start.
It is interesting that the SC GOP is so well organized that hiring local political firms is seen as such a critical policy decision.

Posted by: robert chapman | January 17, 2006 11:24 AM | Report abuse

"Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?"

There's what it takes to win the South Carolina Republican primary.

Posted by: adam | January 17, 2006 11:03 AM | Report abuse

When I think of the South Carolina Republican Primary in 2000 my first memory is George Bush pandering at Bob Jones University. My second memory is Senator McCain pandering to the natives about the Confederate flag. McCain later apologized for that transgression which is more than most politicians would have done. He was desperate after conservatives spread rumors that he (gasp!)fathered a black baby.

Overall I regard the South Carolina Republican primary as a fortress of racisim, homophobia, and religious fundamentalism. An island of tranquility for people against "the reality based community."

Posted by: Intrepid Liberal | January 17, 2006 11:02 AM | Report abuse

SC, like any east coast state with metropolitan areas, has reasonable moderate & liberal contingents. Suggesting that on the whole the state is less socially conservative than Iowa is probably (...surprisingly) accurate.

I only wish I could say with certainty I will still be living in SC when time comes that I can help demonstrate that.

Posted by: anonymous5 | January 17, 2006 10:18 AM | Report abuse

To simply say that the Bush campaign "pulled out all the stops" in winning SC in 2000 is pathetic.

Posted by: jenniferm | January 17, 2006 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Blogs came about as a way for the public to air what the press and media are afraid to say. To suggest that Bush "swamped McCain" and leave it at that is to suggest all is well in the kingdom. Is this a new idea...a "censored" blog?

Everyone who would read a post such as Cillizza's knows that Bush smeared McCain's war record and suggested he had an illegimate "black baby" during that campaign. To gloss over the subject even in passing makes the column less a post and more a typical snow job one would find coming from George Will.

Posted by: Richard Ray Harris | January 17, 2006 10:05 AM | Report abuse

For the record, there is no such thing as a "registered" Republican or Democrat in SC. We don't register at all by party.

Posted by: CowDad | January 17, 2006 10:04 AM | Report abuse

"Asked what separates the South Carolina primary from the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire that precede it, Tompkins responded that his state offers 'a little bit of everything.' Unlike the Iowa caucuses, which are 'dominated by social conservatives,' or the New Hampshire primary, which is 'devoid of social conservatives,' South Carolina 'plays to the candidate who has the broadest appeal or support,' according to Tompkins."

What??? He's saying that Iowa is more of a "social conservative" state than South Carolina??? Puh-LEAZE! That is the biggest heap of malarkey I've ever heard! Lee Atwater engineered the early South Carolina primary precisely so that the social conservatives would rally around a candidate! It was the social conservatives in South Carolina who undid McCain's bid for the presidency in '00, and it is precisely for that reason that the so-called "maverick" senator keeps moving further and further to the right. The South Carolina primary is pretty meaningless for Democrats, since they stand no chance of winning the state anyway, but to the Republicans, it's a test as to which candidate gets the greatest turnout from the party's base demographic . . . social conservatives!

Posted by: The Caped Composer | January 17, 2006 9:18 AM | Report abuse

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