Gizzi on Politics: April 16-20

A Kinder Look at Thompson

Although he has yet to say whether he will run for President in ’08, Fred Thompson has just picked up a major endorsement. Likening the former Tennessee senator and star of NBC’s “Law & Order” to his boyhood hero Ronald Reagan, Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R.) became the highest elected official outside Tennessee to back Thompson’s unannounced bid for the Republican nomination to succeed George W. Bush.

“We nominated an actor before and did pretty well with him,” Kinder told me, from his Easter holiday with his family in Cape Girardeau, Mo. In giving his early blessing to the 64-year-old Tennessean, Kinder also broke with the governor of the Show-Me State, fellow Republican Matt Blunt, who is a strong Mitt Romney booster. (Kinder’s announcement, in fact, came just days before Blunt was scheduled to host a major Romney fund-raising event in St. Louis.) Few Missourians can claim the title of “Reagan man” as much as the 52-year-old Kinder. In a column he wrote for Show-Me State newspapers and in his conversation with me, Missouri’s second-highest state official recalled how, as an 8th grader, he wanted then-Gov. Ronald Reagan of California as the Republican nominee for President over Richard Nixon. While a college student in 1976, Kinder worked for Reagan in his fight for the nomination against President Gerald Ford. That year, the Reaganites shut out the Ford team in the state convention and sent a solidly pro-Reagan delegation to the national convention in Kansas City.

“Missouri Atty. Gen. [and U.S. Sen.-to-be] Jack Danforth asked me to abandon my Reagan commitment as a delegate to the convention and switch to Ford,” said Kinder. “I respectfully declined.” Reagan narrowly lost the nomination to Ford that year, but, of course, went on to win the Presidency in 1980. As a staffer to Rep. (1980-96) William Emerson (R.-Mo.) during the first Reagan Administration, Kinder met his hero with his boss in Reagan’s first meeting with members of Congress at the White House after the President recovered from the attempt on his life. A beaming Kinder told him: “Mr. President, the whole country is proud of you!”

“Trust me when I say this,” said Kinder, “Fred Thompson is the real deal, the closest thing to a natural we’ve had or are likely to see since Reagan.” The lieutenant governor called the Tennessean “a conservative solidly in the mainstream of his party,” noting that Thompson left Washington when he retired from the Senate in ’02 and is thus “untainted by the debacles of 2005-06.” He said the fact that Thompson won his two Senate races by landslide margins in a state Bill Clinton carried twice shows that he has “star power, unmatched by any other candidate—an appeal rightly feared by our Democratic friends.”

Fine, I said, but might Thompson finally decide not to run? Kinder didn’t deal with that one, but quickly pointed out that he had just gotten off the phone with the former senator’s wife Jeri and told me, “She said for me to stand by, that Fred would be calling me later today.”

More Thompson Talk

Kinder’s strong endorsement of Fred Thompson for President comes amid rising talk about the Tennessean’s yet-unannounced candidacy. Last week, Rep. Zach Wamp (R.-Tenn.), national co-chairman of the Thompson draft committee, told that the former Volunteer State senator would be on Capitol Hill this month to meet with potential backers in Congress. Among his fellow Tennessee Republicans, Thompson is the runaway favorite. According to a just-completed Insider Advantage poll among likely Republican voters in Tennessee, Thompson is the first choice for President of 45%, followed by Rudy Giuliani with 15%, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (like Thompson a non-candidate so far) 11%, and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) 10%.

But there are also potential pitfalls in a Thompson candidacy. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal shortly after he hinted he might run, Thompson said of his views on campaign finance: “I’m not prepared to go there yet, but I wonder if we shouldn’t just take off the limits and have full disclosure with harsh penalties for not reporting everything on the Internet immediately.”

Swell. That is the view of most conservatives. But it was not Thompson’s view until he began to think about running in ’08. As George Will pointed out in his nationally syndicated column two weeks ago, Thompson as a senator not only voted for the 2002 McCain-Feingold legislation that restricts spending in federal races, but also campaigned on and spoke for the controversial measure throughout his tenure in the Senate.

“At least Fred Thompson is admitting a mistake and saying that the measure hasn’t worked as intended” was how Kinder explained his candidate’s change-of-heart to me. (Missouri Republicans take the issue of campaign spending seriously. After they took the governorship and both houses of the state legislature in ’04, Show-Me State GOPers promptly repealed all of the limitations on spending in state contests, permitting unlimited amounts of contributions with prompt reporting.)

Others are a bit more cynical about the potential presidential hopeful’s change of heart. When I asked another Republican who requested anonymity where Thompson was in the last five years when others began to point out the troubles in the campaign finance law he had long championed, she replied: “Maybe he was out hunting with Mitt Romney!”

Big Leagues in Mass-5

Much of the reporting about the upcoming special election in Massachusetts’ 5th U.S. House District has focused on the best-known Democrat in the field: Niki Tsongas, widow of the late Sen. (1978-84) and 1992 presidential hopeful Paul Tsongas. No fewer than seven other Democratic powerhouses are vying for the nomination to succeed Democratic Rep. Marty Meehan (who will officially resign from Congress May 9 to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, his alma mater). They range from three state representatives to former Lowell Mayor Eileen Donoghue to Middlesex County Sheriff James DiPaola.

But it doesn’t seem to matter. Pundits and pols almost universally agree that the nomination in the September primary will go to Mrs. Tsongas, director of external affairs at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, whose husband represented the 5th District in the House from 1974-78.

The big political news in the 5th District now seems to be coming from the Republican side. In a district that has not sent a Republican to Congress since 1972, two former Boston College football stars are being talked about increasingly as possible GOP candidates in the special election: Fred Smerlas, five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle for the Buffalo Bills, and Steve DeOssie, linebacker and long snapper who played for the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Giants and Jets, and the New England Patriots. Both live in the district, are well known from years as radio and television personalities (primarily delivering color commentary during football games), and both have been active in local Republican campaigns.

Perhaps most interesting is that, in a state where the term “conservative Republican” has more often than not long been almost an oxymoron, both Smerlas and DeOssie are considered conservatives. “Even though he talks mostly about football on the radio, Smerlas often expresses his pro-life, pro-gun, anti-gay-marriage and low-tax views,” a Bay State Human Events subscriber recently wrote me, “and he and his friend DeOssie, with whom he often appears, seem to agree on these matters.”