Donald Lambro

The other disturbing part of Thompson's record is what else he did in the Senate: virtually nothing. He led no great crusades, nor did he win any medals for leadership. In fact, when he was called to lead the investigation into illegal campaign contributions from China to President Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign, the Democrats rolled Thompson.

Instead of tenaciously digging into the Chinagate scandal, following the money trail wherever it led, Thompson caved into Democratic demands for a strict time limit on the probe that ended prematurely, with little to show for it. So much for his leadership abilities.

All of this has turned the GOP's presidential sweepstakes into a wide-open horse race where the dominant but deeply divided conservative wing is no longer in full control of the party's nominating process.

The most recent manifestation of the party's political balkanization can be seen in the primary calendar battles that I reported in a recent column. Florida Republicans, thumbing their nose at party rules, have moved next year's primary to Jan. 29, ahead of all but four states, knowing it will result in penalties that would cut the state's 112-member convention delegation in half, reducing its conservative clout in choosing the nominee.

But this is a trade-off that the mega-state's GOP officials and Republican Gov. Charlie Crist are willing to make in exchange for becoming the kingmaker in next year's primary contests.

"Although the convention is important, whoever wins Florida on Jan. 29 will move into the Feb. 5 super primary day with great momentum and resources," Republican state chairman Jim Greer told me. But Crist, Greer and other state-party leaders have another political card up their sleeve that they hope will win them a waiver from the Republican National Committee's primary rules.

"There is some discussion that the nominee of our party could instruct the RNC not to impose the rule. I've heard nothing official, but it is behind-the-scenes discussion," Greer confided. "It would be of interest to see if that is a possibility."

Would the winner of the Florida primary -- where Giuliani is the clear front-runner -- promise state-party leaders such a reprieve to gain the full winner-take-all delegate bonanza if it would put him over the top? In an election cycle where it seems all the traditional party alliances and rules are being turned upside down, inside out, anything is now possible.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.