Thompson’s buzz

Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) has buzz. He is enjoying massive media attention as he flirts with if and when he’ll enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

In the latest Rasmussen poll, out yesterday, Thompson was tied with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, on 24 percent support, and ahead of the other two Republicans generally regarded as being in the top tier, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

 Clearly, Thompson is doing something right. His decision to appear on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” last night, for example, got people talking about the possibility that he’d replicate the hugely successful surprise announcement there by then-actor and now-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Just the possibility of such a late-night show-stopper was enough to steal other Republicans’ daily ration of campaign oxygen.

The last episode of the “Law & Order” television series, in which Thompson starred, brought him more attention. And he was a commentator on Fox after the most recent GOP presidential debate. It’s a pretty neat trick to be an unofficial candidate and to be able to hog the camera to comment on the happy scene of your rivals exchanging blows.

And that’s perhaps the point about the Thompson campaign so far. Everyone assumes he’s in the race, and yet, because he’s an outsider, he doesn’t have to do all the things other candidates have to do. He gets more “earned media” because the will-he-won’t-he-and-when-will-he story is more compelling than the latest policy pronouncements of candidates who have already declared.

But there comes a point, and Thompson has surely just about reached it, when a candidate needs take the plunge or look indecisive and unserious. Buzz is wonderful, but it’s like an automobile — it cannot run on fumes indefinitely.

Thompson benefits from the fact that the majority of Republicans appear to find fault with each of their other main contenders. But when Thompson joins the fray, as he must, there is every reason to suppose that other campaigns will give the grass roots reasons to doubt the newcomer, too. The opposition research is being done right now, and Thompson’s formal entry into the race will be the moment when some of that reservoir is spilled over the dam. Thompson has worked deftly to defuse what he knows is coming, and he appears to have at least some coating of presidential Teflon quality.

But there are still 16 months before the general election, and the pressure is building for Thompson to get into the race on the same terms as his rivals. It is then that the candidate will have to demonstrate that in addition to buzz, he has substance.