Former Sen. Thompson’s entry could decimate second tier of ’08 hopefuls

Former Sen. Fred Thompson’s (R-Tenn.) seemingly inevitable entry into the presidential race would no doubt steal supporters from the current GOP front-runners, but his foray could potentially wipe out the second tier.

Analysts say Thompson’s entry could spell doom for a candidate like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee because ideologically and geographically, they are the same to most voters.

But Thompson has star power and media-fueled momentum that would make the former governor seem invisible.

Huckabee has made a number of jokes in recent days about Thompson’s probable candidacy, most recently comparing the former senator and actor to Mighty Mouse.

Outwardly, most of the GOP candidates, especially the top tier, have said they are all too happy to welcome Thompson into the race.

But as Vanderbilt political science Professor Bruce Oppenheimer explained, Thompson’s entrance is made possible only by the perceived lack of electability that second-tier candidates like Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) offer.

“I don’t know that [Thompson’s candidacy] finishes anybody completely, but it makes them less viable,” Oppenheimer said.

Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Arkansas, said Huckabee has been seeking to fill a hole that has been created by conservatives’ dissatisfaction with front-runners Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

But if Thompson enters the race, Barth said, he will quickly fill that void and gain the kind of traction that has been elusive for Huckabee.

“It’s hard to see how [Huckabee] survives,” Barth said.

The most recent poll by McLaughlin and Associates puts Thompson second among GOP candidates, behind only Giuliani at 18 percent. Huckabee and Brownback come in at 1 percent each.

Huckabee’s campaign manager Chip Saltsman told The Hill the former governor would welcome Thompson’s candidacy, but added that the former governor has built a campaign based on his own conservative record, independent of the other candidates.

There is another area where Thompson could hurt the current field, especially those who have made little to no impression with voters so far: Thompson’s late entrance could cause a wave of staff defections.

Saltsman himself might be an example. He hails from Nashville and was one of former Sen. Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) closest aides. He went with Huckabee only after the former majority leader said he wouldn’t enter the race.

But Saltsman insists he is committed to Huckabee until the end.

Oppenheimer said defections can permanently damage an operative’s career.

“If you jump ship … you’ll never be a player again,” he said.

Oppenheimer added that finding staff presents a significant problem for Thompson. He said one of the consequences of getting in the race relatively late is that the most talented operatives have already signed on with candidates.

“I have my doubts that there are that many people who are sitting on the sidelines,” Oppenheimer said.
For now, veteran Washington operatives Tom Collamore and Mark Collaro have signed on with Thompson.
Within Tennessee, state GOP Chairman Bob Davis might be one of those who could jump in. In Nashville, speculation is running rampant that he may resign his position and return to work for Thompson, his former boss.

According to one source, state Rep. Glen Casada told a group of state Republicans recently that he was sure the chairman would get involved.

When asked by The Hill to elaborate, Casada said, “I hope he does, because Bob Davis is good.
“If any of us gets that phone call, out of duty, we would probably drop what we were doing to help Fred Thompson,” he added.

Davis wouldn’t say what he might do, remarking that there is no campaign to join as of yet.
“My father told me not to speculate on things you have no control over,” Davis told The Hill. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”

Davis scoffed at the notion that a Thompson campaign would have trouble finding capable people to join the former senator in his efforts.

That said, the chairman, who hosted Romney last weekend at the state GOP’s annual Statesmen’s Dinner, hardly sounded neutral as he sang his old boss’s praises.

“Fred Thompson’s the one guy who can unite this country,” he said.