The Family Research Council backed Rick Santorum today, further dividing conservatives with a week to go until South Carolina’s primary.
But in the lingering fight to find an alternative to Mitt Romney, these same conservative voters might want to reflect on the last time the vote was split between a presumptive Republican front-runner and his more socially-conservative competitors.
In the first few weeks of January 2008, and heading into the South Carolina Republican primary, former Ark. Governor Mike Huckabee had not only won the hearts and heads of social conservatives, he had also won the Iowa caucus with more than 34 percent of the vote.
Despite a disappointing third-place finish in New Hampshire, Huckabee was still rallying more grassroots money to his side. Declaring that he was conservative, “but I’m not mad at anybody about it,” he had charmed comedian Stephen Colbert. Heck, he had Chuck Norris’ endorsement.
What could go wrong? Fred Thompson, that’s what.
The late-starting former senator from Tennessee turned actor was doggedly determined to stay in the race. By doing so, he sapped the strength of any nascent coalition Huckabee had hoped to construct around his core of faith-and-values voters who were dissatisfied with McCain and Romney. McCain sqeaked ahead of Huckabee, 33 to 29.9 percent, with Thompson taking 15 percent of the vote (along with Romney’s 15). If Thompson had dropped out earlier, events might have turned out differently, as he told me after the fact in a wide-ranging, and rather circumspect interview:
“Fred Thompson’s presence took votes from me. We would have won by 10 points had Fred not been in the race. We would have won handily in South Carolina, but because the conservative vote split, in essence, three ways, and even though I had more than Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney combined, the fact is, their presence kept me from the two points I needed to beat John McCain in South Carolina.”
Huckabee would truck on, winning several more states, but would concede to John McCain after the primary-caucus in Texas on March 4.
As my colleagues and I head out of Augusta, Georgia, tonight, and into the wild world that is SC politics, we wonder if political history is determined to repeat itself.