Thompson’s rapid rise

Startlingly, Fred Thompson has managed to emerge as a top-tier candidate for the Republican Party’s 2008 presidential nomination without either declaring himself a candidate or spending much money.

As a result, the former Tennessee senator is now in the process of assembling a campaign team, testing the waters and preparing for what everyone believes will be a formal announcement sometime this summer.

If it works, he’ll be able to say, “I seen my opportunity — and I took it,” because he appears to be in the right place at the right time and could benefit from the almost palpable craving among many Republican base voters for an alternative to the three current top-tier candidates, whom many Republicans, for different reasons, are reluctant to embrace.

Each of them — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — has his supporters, but none of them has come close to closing the sale with rank-and-file Republican voters.

McCain was considered the front-runner in the early betting and has the largest personal base within his party. He attracted the early money and hordes of Washington establishment types who joined up because they wanted to be with the man they thought would blow away the competition.

What they and he have discovered, however, is that while he has a base within the GOP, many Republican voters simply don’t like him and won’t support him. The strategy he followed required him to solidify and expand his support early, and it turned out he just couldn’t do it. He doesn’t appear capable of moving much beyond what he had when he announced, isn’t comfortable running the sort of campaign he’s been forced to run this time, is letting his notorious temper show  and is beginning to slip badly in most polls.

As a result, his money is drying up, some of those who hopped on board early are looking for a way out and he’s beginning to come across as a tad too strident and desperate. He can hang on, of course, because he’s a fighter and does have a base that won’t desert him, but his best days are behind him.

Mitt Romney is a slick performer and is doing well in targeted markets, but he’s having a difficult time gaining traction. He’s viewed by too many as a tad too slick and just a bit too flexible on matters of principle. It’s not too late and it’s conceivable that he can use Iowa and New Hampshire to get things going, but he has yet to connect with voters in any meaningful way.

Rudy Giuliani has very different problems, and they are likely to prove even more devastating in the long run because he doesn’t have the base support McCain can fall back on or the upside potential of Romney. He’s taken his post-9/11 image as a celebrity tough guy about as far it’ll go. He’s been betting that he can use the “war on terror” and his tough leadership image to trump the social-issues positions he’s taken over the years — as well as the cultural resistance to a New Yorker — but it doesn’t seem to be working.

If his positions on abortion, gay marriage and guns were his only problems, he might be able to finesse them, but his real problems run much deeper. He is, after all, a man who as mayor of New York went ahead and appointed a friend police commissioner after having been warned that he had suspicious Mob ties, later tried to foist him off on the White House as a perfect candidate to head the Department of Homeland Security and then told reporters he didn’t remember being told the fellow might be “mobbed up.”

He remains the putative front-runner only because McCain is dropping like a rock and Romney isn’t gaining much traction, but every day more and more Republicans are realizing that Rudy was never really “America’s Mayor.” He was New York City’s mayor and has proven quite different from the image that attracted many to him at the outset.

All of this adds up to an opening for someone like Thompson who has tenuous support right now as “none of the above.”
The question, however, is whether the former senator will be able to take advantage of the opening.

Those expecting the second coming of Ronald Reagan are apt to be disappointed, but there are no Reagans out there. A consistent conservative who can connect with voters and convince Republicans that there could be more to 2008 than simply opposing Hillary Clinton will draw a lot of support.

The bottom line is that if Thompson doesn’t disappoint those desperately seeking a viable alternative to the Big Three, he could take it all.


Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.