Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson has never been one to linger too long shaking hands. He is a deliberative man, who campaigns in short bursts, and enjoys his private time as much as anyone. So when he finished speaking here Wednesday night, in the cramped back room of a restaurant, he never stopped working his way to the exit door. A few minutes and a couple of posed photographs later, he was back on the bus for another long drive through another Iowa snowstorm.
Nearly a dozen of his potential supporters remained, however. They circled around Thompson's state chairman, Rep. Steve King, the man who just might lift the struggling campaign to a halfway decent finish in the nation's first caucus state. A popular state conservative, King was holding court, as he often does, on the issue of illegal immigration, which he speaks of as a crisis on par with the war in Iraq.
"The casualties in America are greater on average by far than they are in Iraq," he announced, citing dubious back-of-the-envelope estimates about the number of American homicides committed by people without citizenship. About an hour earlier, King had told the audience that Thompson was the only candidate who knew how to deal with those who had crossed the border illegally. "Fred Thompson says, 'You've got to send them back,'" King told the crowd of about 60, earning a hearty round of applause.
The Thompson campaign is hoping that this hawkish immigration message will help earn its candidate a bronze medal on caucus night, January 3. With the two Republican front-runners, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, both polling over 25%, a respectable third-place finish is the most that Thompson can hope for. But even that won't be easy, since three Republican candidates are vying for the third spot in Iowa Arizona Sen. John McCain, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Thompson, each with poll numbers that hover around 10%. Though fourth or fifth place is not necessarily a death knell for any of them, they could all certainly use the bump. As Huckabee likes to say on the trail, "There are three tickets out of Iowa first class, business class, and coach."
As it happens, all three of Iowa's second-tier Republicans are running on a similar message, each claiming to be the best candidate to keep America safe in the tumultuous years ahead. But they differ on emphasis. McCain hopes to focus Iowa's attention on his long involvement in war policy, both as a critic and supporter of the current military strategy in Iraq, which has shown recent gains. Giuliani hopes to shift the focus back to September 11, 2001, when he led New York City out of the smoky ruins of the World Trade Center. Thompson has pinned his campaign to his own charismatic tough-guy appeal, as the man ready to face both foreign enemies and domestic threats like immigration. "I would ask that you consider this, when our worst enemy is sitting down at the negotiating table," Thompson asked the crowd here, "who do we want sitting on the other side?"
A day later and 80 frozen miles away, McCain showed up in a Des Moines suburb, one stop on his three-day private plane hopscotch across the state. "I'm asking for your vote because I believe that the transcendent challenge of the 21st Century is radical Islamic extremism," McCain told a crowd of more than 200 in the suburb of Windsor Heights. "I wouldn't be seeking this office if it were not for that challenge."
McCain has been riding a wave of newspaper endorsements, including a nod from the local Des Moines Register, as well as rising polls in New Hampshire, where he has vowed to win the primary on January 8. But in Iowa, McCain cannot make it through a town hall without delicately addressing immigration, the topic that cost him his front-runner status last summer, when he prominently supported a bill that would give illegal immigrants a path to legal citizenship. "My friends, I learned a lesson," McCain told the crowd. "I got the message." Though he continues to support a path to citizenship, he now says that he would not enact any such plan until the borders are secure. "There will be times when you strongly disagree with me," he said at the end of his talk. "But it won't be because I have taken any political position. It is because I have done what I think is the right thing."