Salena Zito
Manchester (NH): Fred Thompson spent most of caucus night in Iowa hovering between third and fourth place -- a far cry from the lofty first-place position he held in Rasmussen's poll of likely Republican caucus-goers last June. It has been a long time since Thompson has made a compelling reason to be in this race. And it should be a very short time before he confesses a compelling reason to exit stage right. A bystander in his own race, Thompson's political what-could-have-been slipped through his fingers long before he announced his candidacy. “The process for running for president has begun so early,” says GOP political strategist Charlie Gerow, “that if you are not in the game, you are not in the game … and Fred Thompson was never in the game.” Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, says “the biggest loser of 2008 is already known: Fred Thompson. The biggest pre-candidacy buildup since Ted Kennedy in the 1980 cycle has led to the same result -- a failure to come close to fulfilling his high expectations.” The short story of Fred Thompson started just about a year ago at the conservative love-fest known as the Conservative Political Action Convention, or CPAC. There, hints of a Thompson hat-toss began. By late spring, he was all the rage. He hit his high note with a clever video smacking down docudrama king Michael Moore. Suddenly, the political and media worlds could not get enough of Fred. It was his shining moment -- except that Fred forgot to shine. Summer came and went. So did a whole lot of staff and a whole lot of opportunities.

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.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.