COLUMBIA, S.C. - There was a rare edge in Duncan Hunter's voice as he parried the final question from the reporter for WTKK talk radio Boston.
"If you were governor of California, would you pardon Paris Hilton?" Michael Graham asked as he thrust his microphone ever closer to the weary Alpine Republican who had just participated in the second debate pitting the 10 Republican candidates for president against each other.
"I don't know anything about Paris Hilton," a frowning Hunter replied. "My focus is on national security."
The brief interview unfolded here Tuesday night amidst the swirling media frenzy of the post-debate spin room - a scene that underscored the huge odds facing Hunter as he pursues the Republican presidential nomination.
The former chairman of the influential House Armed Services Committee, Hunter, 58, stood for several moments virtually unnoticed as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani swept into the room in the center of a huge pushing and shoving media gaggle attesting to his status as a frontrunner.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain made similar entrances, as they left the debate set on the campus of the University of South Carolina.
But, as his answer to the question about Paris Hilton demonstrated, the 14-term congressman knows the importance of staying on message and Hunter is betting that the outcome of next year's presidential election will turn on defending the homeland.
Even Patrick Caddell, a veteran Democratic strategist on hand to observe the occasion, agreed that Hunter is showing skill in playing his hand - the other cards being Hunter's insistence on strengthening border security and cracking down on China's cheating on trade.
"On his things he was very strong and very articulate - very passionate," Caddell said. "I thought he helped himself - a long way to go. But out of the second tier, he and (former Arkansas Gov. Mike) Huckabee did well."
Given the high political stakes, Hunter approached the debate, co-sponsored by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party, as though it was just another event on a crowded workday schedule.
Instead of the normal candidates' routine of remaining holed up in a hotel room while being prepped by aides firing off likely questions, Hunter strolled the grounds adjoining the debate site doing media interviews. He also gave a brief speech to a rally of several thousand foes of the IRS who hope to junk the income tax in favor of a national sales tax.
"That's what I do on the House floor," said Hunter. "I have people firing questions all the time. That's my debate prep." Despite the urging of his genial campaign spokesman, Roy Tyler, to use up all the debate time allotted for answers to particular questions, Hunter, as in the previous debate, seemed to leave some precious seconds on the table when it was his turn to be queried.
"I give very compact answers," shrugged Hunter. "I let people know where I stand."
Indeed, during the debate Hunter spoke only 834 words - taking up only 5 percent of the almost-16,000 spoken by all the candidates. He fielded the fewest questions - tied with Rep. Tom Tancredo with only five questions. Luckily for him, the five were all on topics he is stressing: two on China, one on immigration, and two related to Iraq and the war on terror.
They gave him the chance - which he seized - to sound tough, noting his own service in Vietnam and blasting the Bush administration for having "a case of the slows on border enforcement."
Afterward, Hazel Jordan, an 80-year-old widow from Savannah, Ga., gushed over what she had heard at the pre-debate tax event. "I love Duncan Hunter. He's the finest congressman we have," she said. "I listen to his views, and where he stands. And it's where I stand."
But, Jordan admitted, she's flirting with a primary-election vote for Romney, in part because she thinks he's better positioned to capture the nomination and win the general election.
And, while Hunter has placed heavy emphasis on hitching his campaign to a strong showing in the early South Carolina Republican primary, his message prior to Tuesday's Fair-Tax event hadn't broken through to Tom Reynolds, a 55-year-old independent construction contractor from Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"That was the first time I've heard him," Reynolds said. "Obviously he supports the fair tax. That's the only thing I know. I'm certainly going to look him up when I get home."
A recent poll of likely South Carolina Republican primary voters by Whit Ayres found McCain leading the field at 25 percent, and Hunter lagging at 1 percent.
Pressed in the spin room on his viability both in this state and elsewhere during the primaries, Hunter pointed to strong showings in Republican straw votes in several South Carolina counties, particularly a joint sampling in Spartanburg and Greenville counties.
"I think straw polls taken by the counties should say something," Hunter asserted to one reporter. "When we get our message out, we go up like a rocket."
Rick Beltram, chairman of the Spartanburg County GOP, agreed ... to a point.
Noting that the two counties are likely to account for up to a quarter of the statewide Republican primary vote, Beltram said, "There is some credibility to the fact that if he can get his message out it resonates." He added, "If he does well in Spartanburg it does give him some degree of traction with credibility."
But getting his message out to Republican activists and primary election voters beyond a handful of South Carolina counties means lots of television advertising - difficult to do given that Hunter raised only a little over half a million dollars in the last quarter, eighth out of the 10 candidates in a field paced by Romney's $23 million.
"The question is, can he raise enough money to get the message out to most folks who simply sit and watch TV?" Beltram wondered. "I will say it's doable, but it's an uphill battle."
Copley News Service