It was way back in early March that former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) declared his interest in running for the GOP presidential nomination. First we heard about a May announcement, then June, then “around” July 4. A Tennessee congressman then predicted “late July.” We’re now into a mid-September announcement, which would give the campaign a little over four months to deploy and compete in a whirlwind series of primaries culminating in “Super Duper Tuesday” on Feb. 5, 2008. The question for the candidate is: What are the urgent tasks that he needs to move on immediately if he is going to fulfill the high expectations that many have for him? Here are some that come to mind. 

1. Get a handle on your record. Thompson has already had to explain his embarrassing lobbying for a pro-abortion rights group, an activity that clearly conflicts with his current pro-life message. If he is going to run as the “true conservative” in the race, he’ll have to work out other inconsistencies soon (he was also pro-campaign finance reform and anti-tort reform in his Senate career). Given so little time, he is not going to want to spend precious hours on the campaign trail explaining his past record.

2. Get your staff and organizational structure in order. A presidential campaign involves assembling a multimillion-dollar enterprise in a very short period of time. Thompson will have four months to do this. He will need a staff with an organizational chart and reporting responsibilities. He’ll have to trust that people and personalities will fit together. He’s already shaken up his embryonic campaign and replaced campaign managers, and he may not have time to do so again. He needs to be confident in his staff and structure from here on out.

3. Refine your message. Touting Thompson as a real conservative is only a start. The campaign will want to focus on his “core message” or “signature issue.” What unique perspective does the senator bring to the campaign? What can he do better than anyone else? What cause motivates him to seek the presidency? These questions will be important to answer for someone who has not been in public life for six years and whose views on many current topics are not well known.

4. Raise money — and lots of it. The economics of this campaign, with its front-loaded primary system, has been well documented. Thompson will have to move quickly to raise the kind of money necessary to be competitive in so many early primaries. Can he raise, say, $40 million in such a short time? We’ll see.

5. Organize the early states. All of the other Republican candidates have been through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and grabbed up most of the available party officials and activists. How well will Thompson do in putting together his own organizational team in these critical early contests? National poll numbers mean far less than the early-primary state numbers, and he has a lot of ground to make up here. Organization does matter in turning out sympathetic voters in the early contests, where percentage points can mean the difference between survival and elimination.

So the question remains: What is he waiting for?