Posse tracks presidential leaders

Who are those guys?”

That was the question cinematic outlaw Butch Cassidy once asked the Sundance Kid about their relentless pursuers. Butch continued, with some envy: “I couldn’t do that. Could you do that? Why can they do it? Who are those guys?” The presidential frontrunners in both parties must be asking the same questions when they look at the latest polls showing unannounced candidates like Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich doing so well.

Pity Mitt Romney. He’s assembled a top-flight campaign team. He’s raised a ton of money. He’s got terrific TV ads. In NASCAR lingo, Romney’s running wide open with his pedal to the metal. But, at best, he’s just running neck and neck, depending on the poll, with two drivers that are still milling around in the parking lot. They haven’t even selected a car or made their way to the pit stalls.

Even Republican frontrunners Rudy Giuliani and John McCainJohn McCainFox News bests major networks in convention ratings Meghan McCain: ‘I no longer recognize my party’ Why a bill about catfish will show whether Ryan's serious about regulatory reform MORE may worry that the Thompson-Gingrich posse is gaining on them, too. And now Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack ObamaBarack ObamaClinton to call on Black Lives Matter at Dem convention The youth vote—a unicorn worth hunting in 2016 Instead of being bold, Clinton errs in picking Kaine MORE are doubtless looking back over their shoulders from time to time. They have only one pursuer to worry about, but he’ll be easy to see. This won’t be like diminutive Rosie Ruiz’s legendary win of the 1980 Boston marathon when she hid in the crowd waiting to slip out and run across the finish line at the end. Big Al GoreAl GoreThe Mike Pence I know GOP senators blast Ginsburg comments about Trump Feehery: Could Trump’s VP pick be a deal-breaker? MORE’s too wide to hide. But like Rosie, he’s got a plan and seems ready to make his move.

Do these Johnny-come-lately candidates have a shot? The polls say they do. But doesn’t the frontloaded calendar work against anyone who has waited? Some observers will make that argument, but they’re wrong. The field is wide open. While Gingrich’s plan to wait until fall seems risky, he may be OK. But summer is plenty early.

The second biggest challenge facing Thompson and Gingrich will be getting enough good local personnel. While top-level strategists are plentiful, the number of everyday operatives in smaller key states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina has dwindled. Even in Florida, a big early battleground, the pickings for field staff will be thin. But enough talent is there to do the job. Scores of state legislators have remained neutral and some will unleash their staffs to help the latecomers catch up. In terms of media consultants, most of the gurus have been retained, but plenty of creative minds are still available, and besides, Thompson and Gingrich need less makeup and fewer cue cards than the others running.

They’ll be fine.

Gore won’t even break a sweat assembling his team. There are plenty of Democrats, at every level of involvement and in every state that counts, who will be happy to drop everything for the inventor of the Internet and exposer of global warming.

Finance may be a bigger challenge than day-to-day campaigning. It’s not that there aren’t enough fresh contributors out there — there are — nor that some contributors to the early crowd might not give a second time — many will. The problem will be more mechanical. It takes a lot of time and personnel to solicit donors, record contributions and then comply with all the requirements of the law, especially when the money comes in torrents. But the challenge is manageable.

The single greatest threat to the late starters will be, ironically, second-guessing. Even politicos who strongly urged Thompson or the others to run will all the sudden get persnickety and nitpick or find fault with their every move. I have seen it happen before: A version of buyer’s remorse turns early supporters into critics as candidates enter the first turn of their race.

But what a race it will be. We’ll find out if these new guys are a real posse or just pretenders.

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