At last Fred D. Thompson is in the race. He skipped the Republican debate in New Hampshire in favor of an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Did he make a mistake? I believe he did. New Hampshire voters like their politics retail. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is leading because of the time he has spent there. Same for Iowa, whose caucuses are first, as to which Thompson has four months to catch up.
The entry of Thompson helps former Mayor Rudolph "Rudy" Giuliani. Thompson splits the conservative vote between Romney, Senator John S. McCain, III and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who is edging toward top-tier status. Pollster Frank Luntz believes that McCain won the debate overall, Huckabee second.
We shall soon learn whether Thompson lives up to expectations. Without being in the race Thompson scored second in many national polls, even tying Mayor Rudy in one national poll. Survey research tell us that Thompson has done well because Republican voters have been dissatisfied with the current crop of candidates, so they put all of their hopes in Thompson. Now we must learn what Thompson is about. Reports from the field suggest that when Thompson reads a speech he flops. When he adlibs and speaks from the heart he does very well. Thus far his staff has been tying his hands with written speeches. At the national meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, Huckabee spoke first and wowed the audience, with his humor, candor and principles. Thompson read his speech. Many described it as the single worst speech they had ever heard. The content apparently was fine but the delivery was terrible. Many legislators came to the convention as Thompson supporters and left supporting Huckabee. The Thompson staff put out the spin that Thompson did so poorly because the teleprompter broke down and he had to read the speech. The only problem with that defense was that there was no teleprompter.
Thompson has been a United States Senator. His Senatorial performance was mediocre. He chaired a committee that was supposed to investigate Chinese money which had infiltrated the 1996 campaign of William J. (Bill) Clinton and other Democratic nominees. Instead Senator John H. Glenn (D-OH) turned the hearing so that it became an investigation of bad Republican fundraising practices. Glenn was thereafter rewarded with another trip into space, something he badly had wanted.
It is not entirely clear what Thompson believes. When he was Senator he seemed to support an open-borders approach to immigration. In recent speeches Thompson has not supported President George W. Bush's comprehensive immigration reform bill, which was soundly defeated.
There is the question of the Federal Marriage Amendment. Thompson initially stated that, although he is a federalist, he reluctantly supported the Amendment because it was too important to do otherwise. Now his staff has put out a clarification suggesting that Thompson does not support the Amendment. That greatly has upset social conservatives, many of whom believe that support for the Amendment a deal breaker. Thus far, Thompson has declined to meet with important social conservatives to clarify the matter.
If the Thompson balloon were launched high but then returned to earth, with Thompson falling behind other candidates, that would mean the several-month tease in the form of his exploratory committee would have been for naught. But if the Thompson balloon were launched high and he were to remain at or near the top, giving Giuliani a run for his money, it would mean that Thompson had been able to unite the majority of conservatives behind him. Giuliani has done remarkably well and has received support from conservatives. Survey researchers have been amazed at the support Giuliani continues to receive from conservatives, despite his pro-abortion position, favoritism for special rights for homosexuals and his three marriages. These researchers are told that they favor Giuliani "because he has run something." There is no doubt that America's Mayor turned around New York City in a remarkable way. Thompson, by contrast, never has run a city, state or business. How much that hurts him remains to be seen.
This will be a long electoral season. Let's hope the American voting public doesn't get sick of the whole process.