Political reportage works like junior high cliques. The pack comes up with labels for all the candidates -- except that in place of jock, cheerleader and nerd, we have a broader list. As in: Most popular (frontrunners), maverick, wonk, nut, waffler, panderer and last, but not least, hopeless.
Fred Thompson, who was in San Francisco Wednesday, is the designated hopeless guy who nonetheless has a slot in the coveted four-man race within the eight-man race for the Republican presidential nomination. The four really hopeless guys are either so hopeless it's not worth writing about them -- U.S. Reps. Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter -- or, in Gov. Mike Huckabee's case, hopeless because pundits who would never vote in a GOP primary think he should be at the top.
Thompson, on the other hand, is hopeless because he is not really a great candidate. He is lazy. Or he lacks energy. Some say he doesn't answer questions -- as if the other candidates do.
On Wednesday, Thompson did answer questions. He is against issuing drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants. When asked about civil unions and domestic partnerships, Thompson said, "I do not think that they're a good idea," but recognizes states' right to decide.
Thompson would permit the waterboarding of suspected terrorists, if informed intelligence agents thought it would save lives. "The measures will always meet the circumstances," he explained.
When I asked him how politics had changed since he chaired the 1997 Senate Government Affairs Committee hearings that investigated fund-raising abuses by the Clinton White House and GOP operatives, he said that "many people took the Fifth Amendment, many people fled the country, several people were convicted."
When he sees the "bundling of large sums of money from mysterious sources" for the Hillary Clinton campaign -- no doubt Thompson was referring to a Los Angeles Times story about immigrant Chinatown dishwashers and service workers who wrote $1,000 and 2,000 checks for Clinton's campaign -- he added that it brings back "some very unfond memories."
While no one asked Thompson about entitlement reform, he does stand out in calling attention to the looming Social Security and Medicare crises. Thompson even brought up the subject at a GOP candidates' debate. Rather than simply announcing that he does not want to raise taxes to deal with the problem -- the easy way out -- Thompson suggests curbing Social Security increases by tying cost-of-living hikes to inflation, not wage growth. This is a path to solvency, according to the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute's Michael Tanner.
State Sen. Tom McClintock -- the Californian conservative's conservative -- announced at a Tuesday press conference in Sacramento that he will chair Thompson's California campaign. It says something -- although I'm not sure what -- that McClintock had not met Thompson until the day of the announcement.
"I've followed his career for many years," McClintock told me afterward. "He was the only one of the top tier of Republican candidates who didn't have to go through a political epiphany the day before he announced his candidacy." McClintock also compared Thompson with President Ronald Reagan -- and not just because both Republicans were actors.
Team Thompson likes the Reagan comparison. They want voters to remember that critics used to carp at Reagan's naps and work hours, too. But I doubt that Republicans are anxious for a nominee who isn't willing to give every waking minute to win the election.
As one erstwhile Thompson fan, who attended the Values Voters summit in Washington, D.C., told me, "I was so angry at his performance that I voted for John McCain."