ROCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Donning a baseball cap with a New Hampshire gun-maker’s logo, former Sen. Fred Thompson smiled into banks of clicking cameras at a campaign stop in the state that helps kick off the White House race.
“I know what you really, really wanted is one more politician coming by and bothering you,” the Republican presidential contender deadpanned to about 200 workers gathered this week at a local gun manufacturer. “I‘m one of them.”
The state with the nation’s first presidential primary has barely seen Thompson -- a fact not lost on voters who jealously guard New Hampshire’s ritual of face-to-face “retail politics”. Political analysts say that could hurt the former Hollywood actor and Tennessee senator’s efforts to win the nomination.
Thompson has made just three visits to the state since formally entering the race on September 6, including a trifecta of appearances on Monday. His campaign in New Hampshire is the smallest of the top-tier Republican candidates, run by six staff in a Manchester office that opened just two months ago.
On Monday, phones in the headquarters were still not fully set up, a campaign volunteer said.
In contrast, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney frequently criss-crosses New Hampshire in a campaign backed by 14 staff in an office that opened in March and has logged hundreds of thousands of phone calls to the state’s voters.
Rudy Giuliani, a former New York mayor, has visited New Hampshire 19 times since joining the race this year. Arizona Sen. John McCain, who polls third among Republican voters in the state after Giuliani and Romney, has made a dozen trips.
“Romney makes more appearances in one day than Thompson has in his entire campaign,” said Andrew Smith, a political scientist and pollster at the University of New Hampshire. “Thompson’s got a terrible campaign here. It’s nonexistent.”
Thompson’s aides say they have focused on the early-voting southern states of South Carolina and Florida, where Thompson polls favorably, and are redoubling efforts in New Hampshire in the final stretch before its primary, likely on January 8.
“We’re going to be here, as I’ve said, early and often,” Thompson said in response to a question over breakfast at Politics & Eggs, a ticket-punching stop in Bedford.
New Hampshire traditionally follows Iowa in the first of state-by-state battles to choose the Democratic and Republican candidates who will contest the presidential election on November 4, 2008.
Registered Republicans and Democrats, as well as independents, vote in the primary. The winner can build momentum for the remaining state contests.
‘THE WRONG FOOT’
Thompson, 65, who played a district attorney on the “Law and Order” television series, opposes abortion, supports the Iraq war and peppered his stump speech with calls for stronger borders, a better-equipped military and a return to the bedrock conservative principles of lower taxes and smaller government.
“Our people are under threat more than ever before in the history of our country,” said the former Watergate counsel and star of films such as “The Hunt for Red October.”
His national celebrity, folksy Southern demeanor and conservative views hit all the right chords with Jay Keenan, a 61-year-old New Hampshire retiree.
“I‘m a limited government type of a guy. I liked his message,” Keenan said.
But independent voter Michael York, 61, said he felt Thompson lacked passion and conviction compared to rival conservatives such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has overtaken Thompson in several New Hampshire polls.
“He didn’t say anything offensive or foolish or make any mistakes but he didn’t seem to have any spark. Frankly I just don’t know how serious he is about this campaign,” York said.
Some voters add they felt snubbed when Thompson announced his candidacy in California on Jay Leno’s TV chat show while his fellow Republican candidates debated in New Hampshire.
“He got off on the wrong foot in September but it’s not just that,” said Dante Scala, who teaches politics at the University of New Hampshire. “There’s no sense that the candidate’s heart is in it. There just isn‘t. Maybe that will change over the next several weeks. We’ll see.”
While New Hampshire is vital for Romney and McCain in their quest for the Republican nomination, it is less so for Thompson, whose deepest support is in South Carolina and other southern states where frustration with the current crop of Republican candidates runs high.
South Carolina’s Republican primary on January 19 will make it the first state to vote after balloting in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan. Winning that contest -- the first primary in the South -- could provide a boost for Florida’s vote on January 29 and in turn build momentum for a flurry of February 5 contests.
But Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said Thompson faces a risk if he downplays New Hampshire and Iowa too much. A rival who wins those two contests could enjoy a surge of publicity that rolls through January, making winning the South tough.
“Either by purpose or by design Thompson doesn’t appear to be mounting a significant effort in New Hampshire,” he said. “But he may be going there now because everyone says to go and they are keeping their options open.”
Editing by John O'Callaghan