Thompson has ‘hidden’ assets

There are many reasons to get excited about Republican Fred Thompson’s potential candidacy for the presidency. There are the certifiable conservative bona fides and the megawatt star power. But those most visible credentials are what the casual political observer latches onto. As a political professional, I believe there are some “hidden” aspects of Thompson’s background that vouch even more strongly for his prospects. In particular, Thompson’s swing-state origins and his self-imposed term limitation stoke my enthusiasm.

Tennessee is an interesting setting in which to learn the political craft. In so many ways, the Volunteer State teaches compromise. Regional conflict is one reason. Tennessee pols must learn to bridge vast chasms of culture and history. It’s almost 350 miles from Memphis and the state’s western border to Knoxville in east Tennessee. But culturally, the distance from the banks of the Mighty Mississippi to old Rocky Top in the Smokies is 10 times the actual mileage. In the middle, there’s Nashville. To be blunt about it, the central communities of the state, particularly the tonier neighborhoods around Nashville, have always had a superiority complex. But they couldn’t get things done without some cooperation from their country cousins.

The hillbillies in east Tennessee, the Mississippi River rats out west and the snooty snots in Belle Meade — they might as well hail from separate states. Getting such a diverse bunch of volunteers headed in the same direction sharpens the political mettle. It’s not surprising that Thompson’s mentor in his early and present career is former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, a man that many called the “Great Conciliator” when he led Republicans in the Senate.

The state is also distinctive in its partisan balance. The Democrats control the state House narrowly while the Republicans have a razor-thin edge in the state Senate. The state has a Democratic governor, two moderate GOP senators, five Democratic members of the U.S. House and four Republicans. Can any state claim to have any more balanced political outcomes?

Thompson cut his political teeth in this competitive environment, first as a manager for others and later for his own candidacy. Doubtless he picked up some talent for winning and wooing voters who are on the fence or who have some partisan or regional disdain for you. That sharpens a politico’s skill. Since the 2000 redistricting fix, many Republicans enjoy such cushy districts that they lack the strategic insight to win where there is partisan parity. Statewide candidates like McCain from GOP havens like Arizona have sometimes forgotten how to win close games. And candidates like ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who matriculated in “hopelessly impossible” states for Republicans, learned how to win mostly by mortgaging their souls or benefiting from the other party’s mistakes. I like the middle ground that Thompson’s Tennessee affords.

It’s also intriguing that Thompson was a genuine term-limiter. Many on Capitol Hill are ardent advocates for term limits, but they’ve been that way for too long. When my firm has polled for term-limitation groups, I have found that one of the most consistently popular arguments for term limits is the built-in accountability that comes when leaders are forced to step down and live as private citizens under the very same laws that they passed in the Senate. Voters love that notion — making the cooks eat their own food. Well, Tennessee’s last two senators (Thompson and fellow Republican Bill Frist) voluntarily stepped down to live under the laws they had passed, and I suspect that will please voters.

Some people remember Ronald Reagan as the guy who parlayed acting skills into a political career. I’d prefer to remember the former president as a citizen-politician who proved he could win in a competitive state. Sounds a lot like Fred Thompson to me.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.