Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Almost immediately after the launch of Fred Thompson's long anticipated presidential candidacy, important neutral Republicans decreed privately that it had crashed and burned on takeoff. Many of these critics had wanted to board the Thompson campaign but were repelled by his "gatekeepers." That helps explain their attitude now, and not merely because of bruised feelings caused by their exclusion.

Thompson's late start in itself is not a fatal flaw. Still, it had been conceded in party circles that when he finally became a candidate, his beginning better be memorable. It was not. While Thompson voiced obligatory conservative slogans in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, he was not the white knight that worried Republican loyalists desperately desire. His debut might have been more blood-stirring had his gatekeepers not turned away talented helpers.

Thompson's burial, nevertheless, is premature. The conditions persist that caused him, an actor supposedly finished with politics, to emerge suddenly in March as his party's potential savior. The leading Republican contestants -- Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain -- all have a glass jaw in the view of neutral Republican Mike Murphy (though Murphy says Thompson does as well). The Republican electorate is still looking for a forceful, dynamic conservative that many have thought Thompson might be.

Failure to utilize the last six months to craft an inspirational, exciting Thompson campaign can be partly explained by the exclusionist attitude by old friends and political professionals in possession of his candidacy. An example of who was excluded is Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 campaign and is regarded as one of Washington's keener political minds. He had contributed to McCain but had not committed to him and was ready to join Thompson's team. Reed would provide Thompson with one experienced political manager who knows how to nominate a Republican for president.

Reed participated in one private meeting with Thompson, but got no further. Three separate sources told me that the gatekeeper who excluded Reed was Mary Matalin, a longtime Republican operative dating back to George H.W. Bush's campaigns. She is a Washington insider who does not espouse the social conservative views that Thompson is expected to project by those Republicans in search of a nominee. Matalin did not return my telephone call.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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