Thompson woos local Republicans — but will they call back?

For an opening date, Fred Thompson’s appearance at a local honky-tonk last week was just flirty enough even without the club’s signature bikini bull riders.

He looked good and invoked the Gipper aplenty despite warning the crowd to be wary of candidates who do just that.

His wife, Jeri, looked great and worked the crowd so well she even introduced herself to the press. The Republican National Committee training groomed her to be Thompson campaign maven.

This being the first date and all, it’s hard to tell whether Nevada Republicans want a call back.

Clearly some loved what they heard. But beyond a few die-hard Ronald Reagan conservatives looking to take back their party, many said they weren’t sure whether they would caucus in January.

That kind of response seems out of place at a $100-per-person political breakfast, even one in a strip mall country-and-western joint.

Most people wouldn’t even tell me their names. Greg, a registered Republican in jeans and a baseball hat, said he believed in Thompson’s message, but didn’t know if he’d participate in the caucus. A volunteer seated to his left said she came for the free breakfast and invited him along. Greg said he liked Thompson’s description of “basic American principles” because the speech was “not this stuff that’s ruining the country with the liberals.”

A couple seated at a front table said Thompson really impressed them. They both said they were leaning toward voting for him, but also said they didn’t know if they’d be caucusing.

A man in Wranglers and work boots said he liked when Thompson told the crowd to “have faith in the Lord and have faith in the American people.”

Asked if he’d support Thompson at the caucus, the man said he wasn’t sure, he really just came to the event as a friend of the club.

At other presidential candidate events, attendees might say they’re still shopping for a candidate and then rattle off the pros and cons of their top two. The crowd for Thompson, which party officials said drew about 100 paying patrons, listened politely. Even at 9 a.m., a good Republican crowd can get up for a rally, especially when it starts with a Bill Clinton joke and a call to beat Democrats.

When state Sen. Barbara Cegavske explained the importance of each caucus attendee, she asked: “Guess who we have to beat?”

A barely audible “Democrats” trickled out, prompting the senator to tell the crowd she couldn’t hear them. You could make out a lethargic “Republican” when she asked who the next president would be.

Thankfully they woke up for Thompson.

“Our country needs for us to win this election,” he said. “We’re not ready to turn the keys to this country over to the party that wants to turn us into just one giant welfare state and the model of Europe or one of the parties that plays politics with national security.”

That drew almost as much applause as his comments criticizing Hillary Clinton’s triangulation during answers she gave in response to questions at last week’s Democratic debate about driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

“I never thought I’d see Hillary Clinton pinned down and have to answer a controversial question,” Thompson said.

He then mentioned her statement the following day as finally answering the query.

“It took her 12 hours to come up with the wrong answer for America this time,” he said. “It doesn’t usually take her that long.”

But most of his 13-minute speech was spent trying to remind the crowd of “the wisdom of the ’80s,” of “peace and prosperity” and “low taxes.” It was Ronald Reagan without naming him, until the very end.

Thompson also said he worried about national security in the hands of the Democrats.

“When our worst enemy sits down at the negotiating table and looks across the table and is trying to size up the United States of America … how much of what they’re hearing is true?” Thompson said. “The question is who do we want on the other side of the table. That’s the fundamental question.”

For all the hyperventilating on the right about Democratic candidates who would negotiate with our enemies, it certainly seemed that Thompson would do the same.

However, Thompson didn’t field questions and skipped off after working the rope line.

Perhaps on the second date we can find out about his current Yucca Mountain position. As a senator, he voted for the dump in 1997.

Thompson picked up at least two endorsements during his overnight visit last week. Cegavske and fellow Republican Sen. Bob Beers both said they were supporting him.

State Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden said an event such as Thompson’s helps generate more buzz about the caucus, and in turn, can help boost attendance for the Jan. 19 event. Asked how many people she expected to participate, Lowden said: “For us, it’ll be the best turnout we’ve ever had.”

Even though Republicans are turnout machines for elections, caucuses have always been focused on core activists, elected officials and those who want to become delegates. So it’s almost a certainty that the GOP will live up to her projections.

It would also help if more Republican candidates spent time trying to win over Nevada’s GOP voters. They just need to throw on some Tim McGraw and talk Reagan. It worked for Thompson.

Contact Review-Journal columnist Erin Neff at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at eneff@reviewjournal.com

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