The former Tennessee senator and actor Fred Thompson has withdrawn from the 2008 presidential race, and leading candidates are lining up to try on the big shoes of the only candidate who once played the president in Hollywood. More than half of Thompson's support came from Christian evangelicals. Where will those voters go? Both Romney and Huckabee are laying claim to that support. Does McCain have a chance at picking up that support? The trick in figuring out the Thompson race and subsequent exit is determining which camp of the Republican Party his supporters came from. Was it from the conservative Christians, commonly termed "evangelical Christians" or more traditional business-oriented Republicans? Or both? The talking heads have yet to come up with a clear answer to that question, though some are guessing, but polling data seems to show that about half of Thompson's support came from evangelical Christians.
Thompson's exit from the race has resulted in political commentators and journalists speculating that Thompson's withdrawal will help former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Others predict that it will help former Arkansas Governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee.
Underlying this debate is the conventional wisdom that Huckabee owns the traditional conservative Christian vote. Romney wants to get his share of support from that wing of the traditional Republican coalition and hopes he can get it from Thompson supporters. But much has been made of the fact that Huckabee got on cable news and said that votes for Thompson in South Carolina would have gone to him if Thompson was not in the race:
In an interview on MSNBC, candidate Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, said he might have beaten McCain in South Carolina had Thompson already bowed out.
"The votes that he took essentially were votes that I would have most likely had," Huckabee told the network.
The New York Times was more open about bringing up the subject of the "evangelical Christian" vote in the next big GOP primary -- Florida. There is little evidence that Huckabee's support or appeal goes beyond that of the evangelical Christian wing of the GOP, but that doesn't mean journalists aren't noticing its influence:
Mr. Huckabee has moved to scale back his own campaign after his South Carolina showing, and has backed away from plans to campaign heavily in Florida. Assuming Mr. Huckabee does not concentrate on Florida, Mr. Thompson's withdrawal could therefore be a boon for Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who has aggressively sought to pull Florida conservatives to his side.
Mr. Romney quickly issued a warm statement praising Mr. Thompson, signaling what his campaign said would be an effort to recruit Thompson supporters as the Republican candidates concentrate almost their resources in Florida in preparation for the primary next Tuesday. Evangelical Christians make up 25 percent of the vote here. ...
Lately, Mr. Thompson casts himself as a country boy who would bring truth to Washington (in fact, he resides across the Potomac River from the capital, in McLean, Va). And in South Carolina, he talked more and more of his Christian faith, attacking same-sex marriage and abortion. But there, too, he found himself boxed in, as Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist minister, had already laid a deeper claim to evangelical Christian voters.
The fact is that Thompson is more aligned with the supporters of Senator John McCain for many reasons. He supported McCain's 2000 presidential bid (he was one of the only GOP Senators to do so). He aligns himself with McCain's independent streak, supported campaign finance reform and is most likely to endorse McCain if he endorses anyone.
So why are all the candidates clamoring to be the heir of Thomson's supporters and what qualifications are they putting forward as evidence of that claim? Some polling data collected by The Washington Post's BTN blog shows that "half of his supporters in Iowa called themselves evangelical or born-again Christians, as did 60 percent in South Carolina."
Journalists should watch carefully to see where this large chunk of Thompson's support falls because it could help determine whether the Ronald Reagan coalition will hold together for yet another presidential campaign. If Thompson was supposed to be the next Ronald Reagan (for reasons other than being a former actor), perhaps McCain is the one that can bridge the two camps of the Republican Party and create a big tent once again. Moreover, how ironic would that be if it were McCain that was able to bring conservative Christians and the Rockefeller Republicans together once again?