Connecticut GOP to Thompson: "Go, Ahead Fred!"

Stamford, Conn.– If there were any lingering worries that it is too late for Fred  Thompson to jump into the Republican presidential race, they appeared to be assuaged last night by Republican activists in a state widely considered to be a hopeless cause for the conservative Tennessean. 

As the guest speaker at the Connecticut GOP’s Prescott Bush dinner here at the Stamford Sheraton Hotel,  television actor and former Tennessee Sen. Thompson wowed the standing-room-only crowd with his calls for U.S. success in Iraq (“We’re not about surrender or retreat.”)

And not permitting aliens to “just wander in” over the border.  In addition, Thompson drew prolonged applause from the 600-plus paying guests when he said that “we didn’t lose [the midterm elections of ‘06”] because of Iraq” but rather because of “pork barrel spending.”

Standard fare?  “Boiler plate” rhetoric?  Nothing fresh or specific?  The 64-year-old Thompson may very well be guilty on all three counts, at least last night.  But to the audience that included more than 50 reporters (including correspondents from the Wall Street Journal and even the London Times), it was less important what Thompson said than that he was there and making his strong, John Wayne-type impression on an state Republican Party that knows him primarily from his recurring role as District Attorney Arthur Branch on TV’s "Law and Order" series. 

“You have to like someone before you listen to the specifics of what he has to say,” State GOP Chairman Chris Healy told me after the banquet.  “People turned out tonight in large part because they wanted to see this big, tall guy from Tennessee that they’ve heard so much about.  He gave a very good speech, reminding base that we have to dust ourselves and get back into the game.  Fred Thompson made it clear that he understands there’s a real disconnect between  the rank-and-file Republican activists you saw here tonight and the Washington DC political culture — a disconnect over out-of-control spending and what the grass-roots activists consider corruption.  Sen. Thompson spoke clearly to that and he did not need to give a point-by-point specific presentation, not yet anyway.”

“He drew shouts of ‘Run, Fred, Run!” and a bigger ovation than the governor [liberal Republican Jodi Rell, who won a full term last fall in a landslide],” political consultant Holly Robichaud told me, adding “that — and the fact that this dinner drew 200 more paying guests than the one in ’06 — should tell you something.”

Coupled with the facts that John McCain won the Connecticut primary over George W.  Bush in 1980, that Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are both neighbors of the Nutmeg State, it does indeed.

An “Uncommitted” Evening

“The [nomination] process has little more than a small window of opportunity and this could all be decided by February,”  State Sen. Bill Nickerson of Greenwich told me at the cocktail reception preceding the Prescott Bush dinner last night.  “And, when it comes to candidates, we already have a superfluity of riches.”

Liberal GOPer Nickerson — son of a Republican state legislator from New York, brother of onetime (1961-69) Nassau County (NY) Executive Gene Nickerson, and himself the pivotal vote in the state senate that gave Connecticut its income tax in 1991 — was voicing a long-standing assumption in Republican politics:  that the “front-loading” of Republican primaries for early next year works against a late-starting candidate such as Thompson and that there is already a field of candidates with strong followings in Connecticut.  Along with McCain’s triumph in the 2000 primary here, Giuliani is well-known in the New York “bedroom community” of Fairfield County and Romney is also well-known as the past governor of a neighboring state.  Tennessee’s Thompson, in short, need not apply.  

But a sounding-out of party activists at the Bush event (named for the President’s grandfather, who was U.S. Senator from Connecticut from 1952-62) demonstrated to me that quite a few are uncommitted and not adverse to looking at a late-but-fresh entry into the GOP sweepstakes.

Gov. Rell appeared to speak for many of the uncommitted Republicans at the Stamford Sheraton last night.  Before the dinner, I asked her if she felt Thompson (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 86%) was too conservative to carry her state.

“I don’t know,” replied Rell, who backed Bush over McCain in the 2000 primary and is so far neutral in the ’08 race.  “Some say that.  We’re a very moderate state.  But let’s listen to Fred Thompson.”

Bob Ward, former Republican leader of the state House of Representatives and now state commissioner of Motor Vehicles, also made it clear that he, too, is neutral in the race.  “I haven’t gotten involved yet,” Ward told me, but quickly added that “Fred Thompson is very impressive.”

“’None-of-the-above’ is ahead right now,” echoed businessman Lee Hanley, a conservative activist in Connecticut since the Goldwater campaign of 1964.  Along with television economist Larry Kudlow (who told the audience he was urging Thompson to get into the race), Hanley was seated at the same table with the guest speaker.

Even Bill Nickerson, after saying how much he Giuliani’s “steadfastness,” made it clear to me that “I haven’t endorsed anyone” and could “happily endorse” any of the major GOP candidates.

In what was becoming almost a mantra as the night wore on, GOP State Central Committeeman Jeff Wright of Newington told me “I’m neutral in this race, but I saw Fred Thompson speak at an earlier event before tonight.  He was phenomenol!”