A Duel: Thompson and Romney

On Saturday Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney ventured to the Young Republicans (YR) convention in Hollywood, Florida and we got a preview of two different types of candidates.

Thompson offered a “red meat” speech-playing to the emotions of the young crowd and pulling out crowd pleasing lines. He intoned: “I’m getting tired of having to apologize for the United States of America around the world. I’m tired of other people’s perceptions that we need to apologize.” He thanked Mary Matalin, chatted about Scooter Libby, reminisced about his days as a YR and repeated threw out lines praising America’s greatness, declaring that America is “the greatest country in the history of the world” and we have been a “beacon of hope for the last 200 years.” He did not however address a single substantive policy issue nor explain a rationale for a potential Thompson campaign. There was no talk of Iraq or the economy or even immigration. As for the Democrats he spent no time addressing Hillary health care or their views on other topics. He did however exhort the crowd, promising that voters would not “turn the keys over to the party of despair and division.” The crowd of youngsters seemed not to mind and cheered enthusiastically.

Romney, by contrast, treated the crowd to vintage Romney: a mix of enthusiasm and optimism with a heavy dose of policy. The speech was structured to compare the Democrats’ vision of change to his. He declared: “”To confront unprecedented challenges, we must change. Both parties claim to be the party of change, and I think both are right. But there’s a big difference in the direction their change would take us.” While explaining the Democrats vision of change is a European economic model he set out his: “I have a different answer. Let’s make the Bush tax cuts permanent. Let’s kill the Death Tax. And let’s have a new tax rate for middle income Americans who want to save their money, who are investing in America. The tax rate on their interest, dividends and capital gains should be…exactly zero!”

On spending he offered, “If I am elected President, I will cap non-defense discretionary spending at inflation minus one percent. That alone will save $300 billion over ten years. If Congress sends me appropriations that exceed that cap, I will veto them.” He also suggested a “top-to-bottom review of government programs, agencies, procurement and spending.” And so it went as he marched through immigration, health care and the threat of Islamic terror. He also took time out to point out his executive experience, declaring “Cutting waste, streamlining, benchmarking — this is what I do. I have done it in business, I’ve done it in the Olympics, and I’ve done it in state government. I simply can’t wait to get my hands on Washington!”

The contrast could not be clearer, at least at this stage in the political race. Thompson offers good cheer, appeals to Republicans’ fear that history may be passing them by and some folksy home charm. Romney has long since passed the introduction stage in his campaign and focuses on policy, laying out a conservative agenda and getting in a few digs at his Democratic opponents.

The straw poll results showed Romney the overwhelming winner but Thompson supporters soon groused that — horrors — the event had been packed with Romney supporters and even non-YR members were allowed to vote. This organizational finesse of course is how straw polls are won and should serve as a warning to the Thompson team as they head from testing to running. Romney’s organization is running on all cylinders and has learned the basics of running an event, corralling its supporters and tabulating a win. Enthusiasm without organization does not win elections.

In the days and weeks ahead we will see more duels between these two as they vie for the role of Movement Conservative to take on Rudy Giuliani (who spent the day with a huge NASCAR crowd). Thompson is an exceptionally appealing and in some sense more comforting messenger but Romney has a message and Thompson will need one too plus some nuts and bolts organization if he is going to make the transition to candidate.