Two shadows loomed over last night's Republican debate in South Carolina - the men who weren't there.
Both ex-Sen. Fred Thompson and former Speaker Newt Gingrich are reviewing their astrological charts to determine if the time is right for their presidential candidacies. These rites of introspection make it much harder for the conservative wing of the Republican Party to settle on a candidate.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's pro-choice position and his backing for gun control and gay civil unions disqualify him from support by much of the Christian right. Sen. John McCain, good on social issues by righty lights, has antagonized them by opposing the Bush tax cuts, sponsoring the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, seeking to limit the ability of our forces to interrogate terror suspects and working with Sen. Ted Kennedy to allow illegal immigrants to become citizens.
Ann Coulter Breaking News - Click Here Now! Conservatives like ex-Govs. Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Tommy Thompson and Jim Gilmore, Sen. Sam Brownback and Reps. Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo can't get their campaigns untracked because everyone is waiting for Newt and Fred to make up their minds.
Their indecision paralyzes their ideological compatriots - a great disservice to the men and women they'd look to as possible supporters should they decide to run. The conservatives are entitled to an answer - are you running or not?
Thompson, cashing in on his star power from playing DA Arthur Branch on "Law and Order," makes conservative mouths water. Some see him as a reincarnation of actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan. But Thompson's record in the Senate, and his genial manner, suggest a take-it-easy mentality that may be inadequate for the rigors of a campaign against the Clinton machine.
Thompson is doing himself no good by his indecision. The longer he stays out and teases conservatives with occasional appearances to keep his name in speculation, the more he feeds concerns that he lacks the fire in the belly or the energy to compete and win.
With Gingrich, neither energy nor toughness is the issue. But his arrogant refusal to consider jumping in before this fall makes it likely that he would be left waging a futile crusade against a well-funded and entrenched Giuliani. Unless Newt gets going now, he'll never raise the cash needed to campaign throughout the country leading up to the early primaries - which are shaping up as make-or-break.
Meanwhile, he is freezing the action among conservatives by hinting at a candidacy, such as when he said on Monday that there was a "great possibility" that he would run.
The field of Republican conservatives has some promising entrants. While Romney's credentials as a conservative are rendered suspect by pro-choice/pro-life flip-flops and by his sponsorship of a liberal health-care program in Massachusetts, other candidates could well carry the ball if Newt and Fred would get out of the way.
Huckabee (disclosure: a former Morris client) is an articulate executive - and former Baptist minister who can set social-conservative hearts aflutter. Hunter's brand of hard-line conservatism could also appeal to broad swaths of the right.
But nobody can get a word in edgewise because of two men who don't think enough of us to fish or cut bait: Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich.