9:12 a.m. CST – Columbia, S.C.: There's a saying in Carolina that, during the sweltering summers, "hell is on the other side of the screen door." Well, hell froze over last night: Just like in Middle Tennessee, it snowed in several parts of the Palmetto State. Currently, it's raining and the forecast calls for a wet Saturday with a high around 50 – weather that shouldn't dent turnout too much.
I'm staying in the same hotel as Mike Huckabee – who has won the endorsement of South Carolina's Lieutenant Governor – and next door to Rudy Giuliani's campaign HQ. I've just arrived at the site of a Fred Thompson rally – the CNN Express is also in attendance – and had a nice chat with Tony Thompson, Fred's oldest son and a Nashville attorney. Stay tuned for snapshots of the event.
10:00 a.m. CST – Sunset Restaurant, West Columbia: A crowd of about 200 has packed into the restaurant for a Fred Thompson radio town hall. After some softball questions from a radio host, the floor is opened up to the crowd, a third of it media.
Questions revolve almost exclusively around the economy and the weakness of the U.S. dollar. Thompson answers in generalities, but takes the opportunity to drop Fed chairman and South Carolinian Ben Bernanke’s name.
The event is slated to be shown on South Carolina Public Television this evening.
Notable Nashvillians in attendance include Bob Davis, former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. Over the next couple of days, more Tennesseans are expected to stop in, including State Rep. Beth Harwell and State Sen. Jim Tracy.
Also on hand this morning is CNN’s chief national correspondent, John King, who I spoke with briefly. He opined that, given the current state of affairs, Thompson might be able to stay in the race even if he finishes second here.
Thompson campaigners also hinted at a possible endorsement at a rally this evening from a South Carolina statewide office holder.
This shindig has wrapped up. It's time to dash to a McCain event. Stay tuned…
12:20 p.m. CST – Gervais Street, Columbia: It’s cold and raining, and approximately 500 people are crammed into a tent along one of Columbia’s main streets for a McCain rally. There is a far greater media presence here than at any of the other rallies : More than 10 cameras are trained on McCain and about 150 reporters are present.
Before the rally began, I spoke with Washington Post reporter David Broder, who said he is focusing primarily on McCain. He said he hasn’t paid much attention to Thompson since New Hampshire.
The event kicks off with McCain and his wife taking the stage to the Stray Cats classic “Rock This Town.”
Among the notable faces on hand are Speaker of the South Carolina State House Bobby Harrell and former presidential candidate Jack Kemp along with U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma).
The energy is high in spite of the frigid weather.
12:48 p.m. CST – Taylor Street, Columbia: I have a minute to expand on a couple of things before I try to catch up with the candidates again – that and I want to warm up for a second.
One of the most interesting comments at the McCain rally was from State Senator John Courson. Courson was the MC for the event and I am told that he is among the "Old South" contingent in South Carolina politics. He said that he "used to be a Bush man, but has now converted to McCain."
That kind of language creating some talk on the ground here that some South Carolina Republicans might feel they "owe" McCain after rejecting him eight years ago for current President George W. Bush.
When I stopped by the Giuliani HQ, it was dead – which was to be expected, since he isn't even trying to compete here. I thought they might at least have a nominal phone bank going, but there was only one volunteer on hand to greet random reporters.
There are also some whisperings that Romney isn't really going to pull all of his resources out of the state so that he can claim (if he finishes second or third) a "great victory." Don't know if that is true, but that's the rumor.
The best line I've heard all day came from a McCain supporter who said that if Thompson won here – being a McCain man, he doesn't think it is possible – that "they should hand out little youth league soccer trophies to all the candidates for participating."
3:20 p.m. CST – Huger Street, Columbia: Just got word that State Comptroller Richard Eckstrom is the statewide elected official endorsing Thompson. I don't know how much weight the endorsement carries statewide, but I do hear that his nod to Fred should have an impact in Lexington County, which is just outside Columbia. I'll know more in a bit because I am heading to a Huckabee rally there as soon as I finish this post.
Probably the other bit of news coming out of the Thompson camp today is centers on accusations of "push polling." Push polling is another way of saying that a rival campaign is calling your supporters and saying things that are untrue or twisted about your record. Team Thompson is looking squarely at the Huckabee camp as the origins of the calls, making not-so-veiled references to the former Arkansas governor at stops in both Columbia and Providence.
As stated, I'm heading to a Huckabee rally now but have probably missed his biggest stop of the day. Earlier in Clemson, he was joined by actor Chuck Norris and professional wrestler Ric Flair. I'd have paid to see that brain trust together, but unfortunately it was too far away. After Huckabee, I should be able to hook up with the Thompson caravan again.
5:10 p.m. CST – Old Chapin Road, Lexington: We're waiting around for Huckabee to arrive at the opening of the Lexington County GOP headquarters. Clearly, he ran long at his battle royal rally in Clemson with Chuck Norris and professional wrestler Ric Flair.
The small crowd of about 50 includes a man standing in front of me wearing a jacket with two patches: “U.S.M.C” and “In memory of Jesus.” The media presence is a reporter from Milan, Italy and myself.
I speak with some of the locals on hand and take the chance to ask a man introduced as ‘Jim’ about the real weight of State Comptroller Richard Eckstrom’s endorsement of Thompson. I don’t get a clear answer, but I come to find out that ‘Jim’ is James Eckstrom, the Lexington County Treauser and Richard Eckstrom’s brother.
Another local informs me, after I identify myself as a reporter from Tennessee, that “what’s important to us here in South Carolina is God, motherhood, apple pie and the TVA.”
Part of the Romney family stops through briefly in the ‘Mitt Mobile.’ During their visit, I prevent a toddler from playing with exposed wiring. Said toddler turns out to be Romney’s 18-month-old grandson, who had momentarily wandered off from his mother.
The Huckabee bus finally arrives. I ask what appears to be one of his scurrying staffers whether Tennessean Chip Saltsman is on this leg of the trip. And I come to find out that the man I asked is in fact Andre Bauer, South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor, who has been riding with Huckabee all day. Trust me, you would never confuse this guy with our current or past Lieutenant Governors. He's very young.
I speak briefly with a real Huckabee staffer, Montgomery Bell Academy alum Drake Jarman. No sign of Saltsman. Clearly, I missed the big Huckabee event today.
Time to head back to Thompson headquarters.
7:55 p.m. CST – Taylor Street, Columbia: I end up having to call an audible when I find out that the Thompson bus is finishing up late and, instead of stopping by their Columbia HQ, heading to a hotel in Seneca.
I had heard that Huckabee was having a media availibility at a place much like Nashville's City Club, and was then going to a fundraiser down the hall. I get there and there is a full-blown press contingent of about 80 reporters packed into the room. We had to wait 30 minutes or so before Huckabee walked in with Bauer, former South Carolina Governor David Beasley, and....Ric Flair.
Coming in behind them and then standing off in the corner, out of the camera shots, is former Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chip Saltsman.
The national media first press Huckabee about allegations that he is behind push polls in the state, the same thing that Thompson has been alleging all day. Huckabee responds that push polls are illegal and that he has nothing to do with them – adding that he has stressed that in Iowa, New Hampshire and now here in South Carolina.
He then flips the script and says that, due to the McCain-Feingold election laws, he and his campaign are barred from contacting groups making the calls. Therefore, we should overturn McCain-Feingold. His emphasis is very much on the word "McCain" when he says it.
After getting over that hump, or at least responding to it, Huckabee is repeatedly asked about the Confederate flag and its flying over the capitol. Clearly, the questions are a result of the presence of Beasley, who was unseated from office in the '90s largely because he moved the flag from the dome.
I speak with Saltsman after the media scrum subsides and ask him what he wants to tell NashvillePost.com readers and Thompson supporters. The ever-confident Saltsman replies, "I understand why they are for Fred, they should be for Fred, but they will be getting a phone call from us about 15 minutes after this election is called on Saturday."
On the way back to my car after the event is over, I am stopped by a media crew from Amsterdam going through their notes. They want me to explain something to them that they can't figure out. They know what a former governor is and what a lieutenant governor is, but they can't come to grips with what a "Ric Flair" is.
I think that's toughest question I have ever been asked.
Thanks for your notes of encouragement and your questions. Please keep them coming, and remember we are posting these updates throughout the day so you don't need to wait on our e-mail alerts. See you in the morning.
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