Is Fred For Real?

Matt Towery

9/6/2007 12:01:00 AM - Matt Towery

Devotees of this column will hopefully give us a little "gold star" for having caught wind of the "Draft Fred Thompson" movement long before most media knew of it.

Former U.S. Sen. Mack Mattingly (Ga.), a longtime GOP mover and shaker, was an early ringleader and public voice for a Thompson candidacy. At first, the Thompson "fill-the-conservative-void" movement appeared to be well on its way to steamroller status. But in the last month or so, the Thompson campaign -- including its candidate -- seemed stuck in the muck of lackluster fundraising. Plus, Thompson's speeches had all the spark of a firefly, and his campaign staff has been anything but stable.

So, now that he is poised for takeoff, is Fred Thompson the political equivalent of the well-known Howard Hughes "Spruce Goose" aircraft, which barely flew at all? Or is he a big bomber ready to drop on the Democrats for the GOP?

The answer is -- in Fred's own hands.

There is little doubt, based on polling data, that many so-called red states are excited about a Thompson run. They like his plainspoken style and his "I can barely stand to do this" attitude. The fact that he does not appear eaten up with ambition is a plus to these hungry conservative Republicans. They long for a return to the days when another relaxed and affable actor, Ronald Reagan, led them to the Promised Land.

But others have interpreted his laid-back Jimmy Buffet style as a clue that Thompson lacks the stamina to prevail. (Don't laugh at my analogy: The one thing I have in common with both Thompson and Buffet is that we share the nation's top entertainment attorney, Joel Katz.)

And the seemingly disorganized nature of the Thompson campaign, with staff departures occurring up to the very last day prior to his announcement, have only added to concern about the ability of Thompson to mount a relatively late entry into the campaign. But let's go back to my earliest columns on the Thompson race.

All along, I told readers that this campaign had all of the signs of being a Bob Dole reunion gathering. Bill Lacy, who is now running the Thompson show, is a longtime Dole man with tremendous national political skills. The turnover in Thompson's camp is not a sign of weakness or confusion. Instead, it is an indication that top pros have joined this "Happy Warrior" campaign.

Admittedly, Fred Thompson starts behind the eight ball in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. But he creates a huge threat in later primary states such as South Carolina, Florida and, yes, the biggest prize of all in the primary season, California. Indeed, it will be California that decides whether Thompson can be perceived as a national Republican -- Southern drawl and all -- who can move voters.

What is the fallout from Thompson's entry? Well, if he lasts more than a few months, he effectively blocks former House Speaker Newt Gingrich from entering the race. His presence makes Iowa, South Carolina and Florida more problematic for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, providing Thompson finishes either first or second in any of the states.

Thompson eliminates any momentum former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee might have been gaining among conservatives. And he creates just another roadblock for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as he enters the more solid red states.

The ultimate issue for Thompson will be the candidate himself. He is likeable, sane and articulate. But his public speeches during his "pre-announcement" stage have been, well, totally uninspiring. He seemed to lack a coherent message and a will to truly fight.

The question now is whether Fred Thompson is the type of actor who is only good reading a script, or if he can pull from his gut the sort of emotion needed to win. If he has the latter talent, he might just be the dark horse of the decade, for not only the Republican Party but for the nation. If he doesn't, he will likely die a quick political death. That would leave only one potential "would-be" candidate -- Gingrich. And he has never been accused of lacking fire in the belly.