FORT MILL -- Fred Thompson brought his made-for-TV personality to York County for the first time on Tuesday, delivering a talk that mixed his trademark Southern drawl with sharp words for others in the Republican presidential field.
Thompson needed less than 15 seconds to dispatch with the obligatory assault on Democrats as strong on welfare programs and weak on national security. But he spent the rest of an hourlong visit to Beef 'O' Brady's restaurant pointing out differences with rivals in his own party.
The strongest critique was saved for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who leads in the polls in Iowa but has yet to generate the same success in the Palmetto State.
"All I've got to say is, governor, you can't buy South Carolina," Thompson told an audience of about 150. "You can't even rent South Carolina."
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Though his campaign appears to be floundering in many national polls, Thompson is counting on an early victory in South Carolina, where he currently holds a narrow lead over Rudy Giuliani.
The visit to Fort Mill was a late addition to his schedule, and it prevented the former "Law & Order" star from being labeled the only top-tier Republican candidate who hasn't appeared in York County.
"I consider it my neck of the woods, and I hope the people here feel the same way," Thompson said.
Drawing distinctions with rivals
Romney wasn't the only candidate to draw Thompson's attention. He told listeners he had just come from "a get-together in Columbia," where a number of military veterans voiced their support for his campaign. That comment seemed a subtle comparison to John McCain, the Vietnam vet who relies heavily on military ties.
Later, in brushing aside the idea that he doesn't show enough emotion on the campaign trail, Thompson argued that voters are looking for a calm demeanor -- an indirect reference to the occasionally volatile Giuliani as well as Hillary Clinton.
"Do they want someone with their finger on the nuclear button who has fire in his belly ... or her belly?" he asked.
Since entering the race in September, Thompson has been criticized for giving audiences a less-than-electrifying stump speech. He doesn't give detailed explanations of his policy proposals or reel off statistics to back up his points.
In Tuesday's talk, his analysis of the threat posed by Islamic extremism consisted of: "They want to kill us. It's just that simple."
But that kind of plainspoken approach played well with listeners such as Joe Pugliese, who moved last year to Lancaster County's Sun City retirement complex from Long Island, N.Y.
"I met him on the set of 'Law & Order' in New York," said Pugliese. "He has charisma. When the cameras are on, he's there. My biggest uncertainty is that he really doesn't have the backing of the party."
"Nobody does yet," chimed in fellow Sun City resident Bruce Miller, capturing the best argument for why Thompson has a decent shot at the GOP nomination.