Heilemann on South Carolina’s Republican Primary: Guess Which Three Will Bleed Next

The presidential campaign of Fred Dalton Thompson has surely been among the most puzzling curios of this year’s Republican race. Maddeningly long in gestation, then apparently stillborn, it has been an effort so laconic, even lazy, that its slogan might as well have been: Thompson 2008 – As if It Mattered.

But down in South Carolina the past couple of weeks, Deputy Dawg finally seemed to have found an animating rationale for his bid for the presidency: Driving a stake through the heart of Mike Huckabee. The attacks that the former Tennessee senator launched against the former Arkansas governor were withering and ceaseless. For proposing the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay. For being a pansy on illegal immigration and nonpunitive toward illegal immigrants. For wanting to sign a law curbing public smoking. In the Republican debate in Myrtle Beach on January 11, Thompson summed up his jaundiced view of Pastor Mike thusly: “He would be a Christian leader, but he would also bring about liberal economic policies, liberal foreign policies.”

The desperate flailing of a dying candidate? No doubt. But the results in the South Carolina GOP primary this past Saturday indicate strongly that they had their desired effect. In a squeaker, Huckabee lost to John McCain by a margin of 33-30, with Thompson finishing a distant third with 16 percent of the vote. Those 16 points almost certainly came directly out of Huck’s hide. “Fred Thompson, John McCain’s lap dog, came down here and definitely hurt the Huckabee vote, no doubt about that,” said David Beasley, the state’s former governor and Huckabee’s local campaign chairman, in the aftermath.

The biggest loser out of South Carolina was Thompson himself; his third-place finish suggests that the only questions are just how soon he throws in the towel and whom he endorses. (As the Beasley quote above suggests, the answer to the latter is likely to be McCain, from whom Thompson may be hoping to receive a vice-presidential slot — assuming, that is, his primary objective isn’t simply to return to Law & Order and his La-Z-Boy.) Nearly as big a loser, however, is Huckabee, whose candidacy now stands revealed as a purely Evangelical endeavor. In two consecutive races where the economy was central, his populist pitch has fallen largely on deaf ears. And despite his own desperate Christianist maneuvers — arguing in the contest’s final days that the Constitution needs to be amended to be brought into line with “God’s standards” — Huckabee managed to win only 46 percent of the Evangelical or born-again vote. Without any demonstrated capacity to move beyond that base, he, too, is the walking dead.

That leaves three plausible Republicans standing as the race turns to Florida, where the January 28 primary will set the table for Super Duper Tuesday one week later. The obvious conclusion is that McCain, having won in New Hampshire and South Carolina, is now the GOP’s front-runner. But there are several reasons not to bet the rent on him yet. First, his problems with the Republican rank and file are still much in evidence: In South Carolina he lost, albeit narrowly, to Huckabee with these voters. Second, McCain remains extremely cash-poor; he has yet to advertise in Florida, and although he will take to the airwaves there today, he remains at a decided financial disadvantage to both Giuliani and Mitt Romney. And third, the economy is likely to be pivotal once again in Florida, and this happens to be the self-styled Straight Talker’s weakest issue: Please recall his (alarmingly honest) confession in New Hampshire that “the issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should,” along with its hilarious coda, “I've got Greenspan's book.”

I have written already about my view that Giuliani is well positioned to turn his sow’s ear of a strategy into a silk purse with a victory in Florida. Let me simply add that one of the reasons I believe this to be true is a simple matter of delegate math: With a bounce out of the Sunshine State, Rudy could well win California, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, giving him more than 30 percent of the delegates he’d need to win the nomination. If Giuliani fails in Florida, however, the race will quickly boil down to McCain versus Governor Headroom (who, it should be noted, is the current leader in the accumulation of delegates). Two men with very different strengths — foreign policy for McCain, the economy for Romney. Two men with very different constituencies — moderates and independents for McCain, conservatives for Romney. And two men who plainly despise each other at the core of their very beings. Who would win? I make no predictions except this one: There will be blood. —John Heilemann

Earlier: Heilemann on Michigan's Republican Goat Rodeo: Is Rudy a Mad Genius After All?

For a complete guide to New York presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani—from First Love to Most Embarassing Gaffe—read the 2008 Electopedia.