His eventual announcement in September came with a hefty price tag -- the Republican Primary voters in New Hampshire. He chose to announce on Jay Leno’s show, bypassing the first New Hampshire debate the same evening.
“He was an attractive idea, an image, and the reality couldn’t match it,” Sabato says. “This may be the fate of anyone touted as the next Reagan. Reagan is no longer a man. He’s a myth. No living human being can fulfill those expectations.”
“My opinion of what happened to Fred Thompson is that he turned out to be ... Fred Thompson,” adds Matt Lebo, political science professor at New York’s Stony Brook University.
“I don't think it’s just his late entry -- that is just a symptom of the problem,” Lebo says. “The problem is that he has never shown a willingness to fight for conservative causes. Believing in those causes isn't enough. There should be some evidence that you are willing to do something about it.”
While comparisons have been made to the failed 2004 campaign of Wesley Clark, those may not be fair. Clark was a political novice; Thompson is not.
So why did Thompson go wrong?
“I think he was expecting to ride in, pick up the bouquet, and that would be that,” says Bert A. Rockman, head of the political science department at Purdue University. “It doesn’t work that way.
“People confuse appearance with reality. Thompson played hard-as-nails authority figures on TV and in the movies. But his campaign had no distinctiveness, no comparative advantage.”
Somehow, someone must have convinced Thompson that times had changed and he could run a different kind of campaign, one that suited his low-key approach to politics. A campaign sans rubber-chicken dinners, moldy bus tours and all the other degrading aspects of running for president.
Tack on the misconceptions that tens of millions of dollars were waiting for him, that he could easily round up organizational support -- and that pretty much sums up why the promise of Fred never happened.
As the country shifts its gaze toward New Hampshire, Thompson stands to fare even worse here than he did in Iowa. As of Friday morning, he was polling sixth among likely Republican voters.
So, the near-term question for Fred Thompson isn't if he drops out of the race but when.