One well-subscribed scenario for the 2008 Republican presidential contest has been that Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson will compete early on for the True Conservative Candidate mantle and an opportunity to take on Rudy Giuliani in the February 5 mega-primary, with Mike Huckabee possibly emerging as a dark-horse alternative.
Romney continues to lead all polls in IA and NH, and Huckabee’s duly made his appearance on Stage Right with a second-place showing at the Iowa Republican Straw Poll earlier this month. But where’s Fred?
There’s a corrosive article by Jonathan Martin up today at the Washington insider publication The Politico suggesting that Thompson’s just too disorganized and dispirited to run a serious presidential campaign.
Back in early summer, one very smart conservative with presidential campaign experience told me that Thompson’s decision about seriously contesting Iowa–one way or another–might well be the biggest turning point in the entire GOP nominating process. Fred’s shown every indication of giving Iowa a pass, instead staking almost everything on breakthrough wins in SC and FL. And the decision might have made sense if he had used the time gained by the delayed announcement of candidacy to create a tight, efficient, well-funded campaign organization.
Instead, says Martin:
Thompson’s plunge into the race, which aides once indicated would happen around the Fourth of July and is now planned for after Labor Day, comes amid increasingly public hand-wringing by supporters over whether he has waited too long to capitalize on the surge of interest that accompanied reports of a potential candidacy more than five months ago.
Beyond the mere anxiety of the waiting game, he has suffered through a summer of stumbles. In a short period of time, Thompson has already been hit with the sort of problems that it takes most campaigns months longer — not to mention a full-blown candidacy — to accrue.
These problems include a whole host of staff departures; infrequent and lackluster candidate appearances; and most of all, money shortages. Even Thompson himself is sending out signals that fundraising isn’t going that well. And potential donors can’t be too happy about writing checks to pay for staff who are likely to hit the bricks after a few weeks of exposure to the proto-campaign.
Still, Fred’s running second in virtually every national poll of Republicans, illustrating the powerful unhappiness of GOPers with the field. And he’s neck and neck with Rudy in SC.
But he’d best get a move on. As an actor, Thompson surely understands that his assigned role in the campaign narrative is as the Establishment Conservative: a safe alternative to his flawed rivals who also has some general-election potential. And that’s why for Fred-Heads, reading articles like Martin’s in a beltway outlet like The Politico must feel like hearing (to borrow a phrase from a very different Thompson, the late Hunter) the Hound of the Baskervilles snuffling and howling on your front porch.
With all the GOP candidates (except for the very well-known McCain) working hard both to appear bona fide conservative, but a change from the Bushies, the Neocons may have their boy in Thompson. Is this waiting game just giving enough time for the media to be distracted by Alberto Gonzalez and his successor’s nomination, so that Karl Rove can slip out the back door of the White House and quietly into the Thompson camp? The two are ideologically aligned; and with Rove at the rudder, a Thompson campaign would be much more formidable.
Maybe the strategy this summer has been for Fred Thompson to lower expectations. When he first announced, everyone thought he was the dream candidate. That surely isn’t the case anymore. Now, when he enters the race – if he doesn’t mess up – the pundits will call it a successful start.
Thompson sure isn’t acting like he really wants to run and there doesn’t seem to be any legs to his support – it seems more a proxy for None of the Above.