Six days before South Carolina Republicans go to the polls, the spat between the Southerners who need to win that crucial primary -- former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee -- continues to get uglier and uglier, even as both men tread more lightly on the candidate who leads the most recent poll in that state, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
"Fred Thompson talks about putting America first, and yet he's the one who is a registered foreign agent, lobbied for foreign countries, was in a law firm that did lobbying work for Libya," Huckabee charged Sunday morning on CNN.
Thompson, who had launched an aggressive attack against Huckabee's record during Thursday night's GOP debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., responded by insinuating that Huckabee is in truth nastier than his sunny demeanor, is unprepared for the presidency, and is making personal attacks while Thompson is "talking about issues concerning this country."
Huckabee has "raised enough money now to get some hit pieces and dredge up personal stuff and personal accusations against me," Thompson told CNN. "And now you're seeing the real Mike Huckabee come out. So, I think we've done a favor to the American people. Because these are serious times, and they require somebody that knows what they're doing and doesn't walk into a situation with foreign representatives and heads of foreign nations with training wheels on."
Told what Thompson said on CNN, Huckabee told reporters at the Greenville/Spartanburg Airport in Greer, S.C., Sunday afternoon, "Well, it seems like its perfectly okay for he or others to fire away these lengthy salvos at me, but if I respond then it's a personal attack. If you're gonna play big league ball, you have to stand at the plate as well as throw a few, and that's just the way it works. If you really can't handle that, you probably shouldn't run for something as serious as president."
Since 1980, no Republican has won the presidency without first winning the South Carolina primary. But in this year's unpredictable GOP contest, with any number of possible nominees and no clear frontrunner, the South Carolina primary has taken on extra importance -- for Huckabee and Thompson in particular.
Huckabee needs to demonstrate that his Iowa caucus victory Jan. 3 wasn't a fluke, and that his scotch-tape-and-rubber-bands campaign is capable of going national. For his part, Thompson needs to win somewhere. Anywhere.
Addressing the substance of Huckabee's charges, Thompson Sunday acknowledged he was "in a law firm that did some lobbying work for Libya," but his involvement was minimal. He said he'd registered with the government because of "five minutes' worth of contribution" to discussions about another client, Haiti.
"It was totally consistent with the policies of this country, where a dictatorship had taken over that country and we were opposing that," Thompson said.
During the Republican debate Thursday night, Thompson -- about whom even his supporters complain of less-than-energetic campaigning -- showed remarkable pep and vigor, attacking Huckabee for having overseen a net tax increase as Arkansas governor, for having pushed merit scholarships for the children of illegal immigrants, and for having suggested he would sign a nation-wide ban on smoking in public places. He took issue with comments Huckabee made that the Bush administration had demonstrated an "arrogant bunker mentality" in its foreign policy.