The Understudy 

Huckabee takes center stage, while Thompson heads to the wings.

Earlier in the year, local Republicans, like their counterparts elsewhere in Tennessee, were jumping ship from other presidential campaigns to make known their allegiance to former Senator Fred Thompson. That was back when Law & Order star Thompson, presumably on the strength of his Nielsen ratings, was considered the answer to GOP prayers.

The lanky, rawboned actor/lawyer/lobbyist, a native of Lawrenceburg in Middle Tennessee and a University of Memphis graduate, had ample cachet. A protégé of former Senator Howard Baker, who in 1973 made him minority counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee, Thompson had by 2007 been in the public eye for a full generation.

His acting career in the movies as well as on TV, plus eight years in the Senate, had made him a figure familiar enough to be a formidable trump card. But when he got turned up on the table — or, more to the point, when he began standing side-by-side with his GOP rivals on the debate sage — something seemed to be missing.

Maybe it was age (some thought Thompson looked unexpectedly thin and ravaged), maybe it was conviction (what was his role supposed to be? moderate? arch-conservative? Bushite? critic?), or maybe it was the candidate's well-known laissez-faire attitude toward exertion. Whatever the case, the Thompson boom went from bang to whimper in record time.

Meanwhile, another Mid-South candidate has been auditioning well on the road. That's Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and, as has been pointed out ad infinitum, a native of Hope, hometown of two-term former Democratic president Bill Clinton, another up-from-nowhere sort.

By now, Huckabee has actually taken the lead among Republicans in Iowa, whose caucuses will be held in early January. His dramatic arrow up parallels Thompson's going down. And, whereas Thompson had never quite defined his character in the ongoing campaign drama, the folksy but articulate Huckabee has his down pat: He's an unabashed pro-life social conservative but also an economic populist who raised taxes for social programs as governor and who regularly denounces "Wall Street" in the manner of a latter-day FDR.

As such, Huckabee performs the improbable feat of yoking two points of view that have been politically sundered for well over a generation. In some ways, he's a throwback to the old Southern Democratic model. He's a former Baptist preacher who can also play a mean bass guitar on "Free Bird" — a feat he performed alongside current Shelby GOP chairman Bill Giannini's lead guitar at the local Republican "Master Meal" last year.

Huckabee's plain-spoken oratory was also a huge hit at that event, and there's no doubt that the seeds for a mass following have been planted in these parts.

Tracy Dewitt of the Northeast Shelby Republican Club is a dedicated supporter, as is Paul Shanklin, the local businessman and successful impressionist who does all those politicians' voices for Rush Limbaugh. The Arkansan's national campaign manager, moreover, is Chip Saltzman, an ex-Memphian and a graduate of Christian Brothers University.

When the East Shelby Republican Club, one of the GOP's local bedrocks, had an informal straw-vote poll at its regular monthly meeting last week, Thompson still had the residual strength to come out well ahead. Huckabee was down among such relative also-rans as New York's Rudy Giuliani and Massachusetts' Mitt Romney.

But that, as club president Bill Wood acknowledges, was then. Now is something else. "That was before Huckabee got a front-page article in USA Today and all this other recognition." If the same straw vote were held today? "Oh he'd go up like a bullet. There were already a lot of people here who liked him. Now they're starting to see how he's doing in the rest of the nation."

Indeed, it is probable that, if Huckabee should hold his present numbers and win Iowa, you couldn't build a big enough bandwagon to accommodate his supporters locally.

One caveat: Thompson could still come back. There are many political observers who remember his lackadaisical start in 1994 against Democratic Senate opponent Jim Cooper, whom he trailed at one point by 20 points in the polls — the same number he would eventually win by against Cooper.

But for the time being, the man from Hope has center stage.

Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.

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