Jonah Goldberg

Well, Fred Dalton Thompson finally made it official, on the "Tonight Show" of all places: He's running for president. Though so far it's been more like strolling for president.

I like Thompson, but I've been pretty much immune to his cult of personality. It's amazing: Just say "I don't get it" about the man, and some Thompson fans will react like you disputed the wholesomeness of their mother's recreational habits.

I still don't really get the hoopla over the guy, but now that he's officially in the race, I'm giving it a try.

Until recently, pundits - including yours truly - chalked up Thompson's successful non-candidacy to Republicans' dissatisfaction with their choices. Thompson, a folksy actor with considerable communication skill - some say he's "Reaganesque" - was seen as the GOP's white knight, even its savior.

One problem is that Thompson took a really long time getting into the race, and white knights and saviors usually don't spend endless months lollygagging on the shady side of their "testing the waters" committee. Sir Lancelot didn't wait for just the right weather, after all. Thompson's critics point to this as Exhibit A in the case that Thompson is "lazy."

Thompson's response to the criticism is that he's in second place without raising tens or hundreds of millions of dollars as the experts said he had to. So what do they know? And, as he told Jay Leno, "I don't think people are going to say, ŒYou know, that guy would make a very good president, but he just didn't get in soon enough.'"

It's a good line and a good point, but it leaves out an important consideration. Politics is about seizing your moment. By taking this long, Thompson's Hamlet act may have cooled the ardor among his strongest supporters (and royally ticked off New Hampshire Republicans). He may be able to win over the uncommitted, but he also might have cost himself those he had at "hello" by saying "maybe" for so long. True believers are prized commodities in politics, and once their passions cool, they lose most of their value. Only time will tell if he's hurt himself.

The question for his competitors is, can they hurt him? Which brings us back to this laziness charge. The notion that Thompson doesn't have the "fire in the belly" to run for president has been bandied about Washington for a long time. But is it really a character flaw to think twice about jumping into the primary mosh pit earlier than necessary?

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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