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.
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