Fred Thompson to the Rescue?

He hears a cry of distress. He steps into a phone booth. He dons his red cape. He leaps into action … It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Fred Thompson!

Yes, in what many Republicans hope will be a repeat of 1980, another actor is flying to the rescue of the beleaguered GOP. According to Politico.com, Fred Thompson will file papers forming a campaign committee in early June, and officially announce his candidacy for president over the July 4 holiday.

Granted, it doesn’t take much to excite members of the Washington punditocracy. Nevertheless, Fred Thompson’s belated entry into the race has left even veteran reporters positively orgasmic — with little apparent reason.

No one can deny that, with the exception of Ron Paul, the current Republican field is decidedly unimpressive. Neither the Mayor nor the Senator nor the Used Car Salesman is setting the world on fire. But what makes Fred Thompson better than the other 10 candidates already in the race? And what does Thompson stand for? Does anybody really know?

Actually, it’s hard to tell. He’s a big supporter of Bush’s war in Iraq, but not of Bush’s immigration plan. In the Senate, he voted yes on drilling for oil in Alaska, but no on background checks on handguns purchased at gun shows. He voted yes on amending the Constitution to prevent flag-burning and yes on banning gay marriage, but no on raising the minimum wage.

In other words, there’s little apparent difference, on the issues, between Fred Thompson and all the other candidates — except that he’s not one of them. He’s not John McCain. He’s not Mitt Romney. He’s not Rudy Giuliani. And that is his singular appeal. But, surely, it’ll take a lot more than that to win the White House.

Thompson supporters — who gleefully call themselves “Fred-heads” — worship the actor-turned-senator-turned actor as the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, several former top Reagan aides, led by Michael Deaver, are helping Thompson shape his campaign. Like the Man from General Electric, they insist, Thompson is not only an actor. He’s folksy, likeable, articulate and, best of all, an outsider.

But, even with Deaver’s help, it’s going to be hard to sell Fred Thompson as the next Ronald Reagan. For one thing, he’s no Washington outsider. He came to Washington in 1973, as chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, and has been there, in one capacity or another, ever since. From 1975 to 1992, he worked as a lobbyist, representing Westinghouse, GE, the Tennessee Savings and Loan League, and other clients. Elected to the Senate in 1994 to serve out the last two years of Al Gore’s term, he was reelected in 1996 and retired in 2002. Thompson’s an inside-the-Beltway fixture. He’s spent more time in Washington than he has in Tennessee.

Nor does Thompson win any awards for public speaking. Like Reagan, he’s good at reading a script. But, unlike Reagan, he’s not that good off the cuff. In fact, Thompson’s maiden 2008 campaign speech, before the Lincoln Club of Orange County, Calif. — whose members are credited with persuading Reagan to run for governor of California — left his audience underwhelmed. “No red meat.” “Too low key.” “It was not Reaganesque.” Those were just some of the post-speech comments reported by columnist Bob Novak.

The worst rap against Thompson is that he’s lazy. He quit the Senate because he preferred the much easier schedule of an actor. Sure, he’d like to be president, but does Thompson have the “fire in his belly” necessary to fight for and win the Republican nomination? If so, it’s not always obvious.

In March, I attended a talk radio seminar in Los Angeles. There in the crowd all weekend, as a contributor to ABC Radio, was the former senator from Tennessee, making no speech, just sitting in on panels, meals, and discussion groups, like all the rest of us. Meanwhile, the national media was buzzing with “breaking news” that Fred Thompson was actively considering jumping into the presidential race. I couldn’t help but think: “Doesn’t look like somebody who’s about to run for president to me!”

It’s a sign of how desperate Republicans have become that Fred Thompson’s campaign is even taken seriously. At the same time, remember Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Democrats must beware of writing former actors off too easily.

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