MASON CITY, Iowa — Even his harshest critics would likely concede that Fred Thompson had a good campaign swing through Iowa last week.
But as he headed home to Virginia for a three-day Christmas break before returning to Iowa for the second half of his Iowa bus tour, the question that this last-minute effort began with still stands.
Will it make any difference?
Sure, Thompson won the endorsement of influential conservative Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa. And despite losing out on Rep. Tom Tancredo’s endorsement when the Colorado congressman dropped out of the presidential race and backed Mitt Romney, the next day Tancredo’s Iowa campaign chairman endorsed Thompson.
Yes, Thompson’s five-stop-a-day schedule answers critics who say he is a lazy campaigner. And the press coverage has been more positive, the crowds larger, the candidate sharper yet more relaxed and sometimes even appearing to be having fun.
But politics, in the end, is about concrete things like fundraising dollars and votes. And in those empirical categories it is difficult to see any impact yet.
Some polls have shown slight improvement but others have shown him dropping slightly among voters in Iowa and nationally.
The Rasmussen Reports daily tracking poll found Thompson at 11 percent nationally at the start of the week and the same number at the end of the week. That left him tied for third behind Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
While staffers say there have been no pay cuts or layoffs, the financial leanest of Thompson’s campaign is obvious. Romney launched three new TV ads in the past week and was on a jet.
Thompson was on a bus, albeit a large, tricked-out one, and left to stopping at small newspapers, doing radio “town hall meetings” and posting pleas for money on his Web site.
Thompson aides say that they have seen increases in donations and in traffic on the candidate’s Web site, but would not give specific numbers. And they point to the pile of commitment cards signed by voters at this week’s events promising to go to the Jan. 3 caucus and support Thompson.
Thompson said Saturday at the only event he held before a snowstorm forced him to cut short his campaigning and head home that he sees improvement in the reaction of the audiences, the polls, and the comments of prominent conservative political pundits.
“It’s also the feeling I have as a person who’s won elections,” Thompson said.
In the end, however, Thompson supporters in Iowa are left to hope there are more people like the woman in Fort Dodge, who came to see Thompson speak at the Webster County Republican headquarters.
As her husband stood outside in the Iowa cold smoking a cigarette, he looked through the window at his wife chatting with members of Thompson’s staff.
His wife, he said, had attended a Romney event the night before and had decided to support him. “Now, I bet she’s in there changing her mind,” he lamented.
Sure enough, when she came out the door she was a committed Thompson supporter who had even sat for a video interview to the posted on the campaign Web site.
Williams Theobald is a political reporter for Gannett News Service.
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