What's With Thompson's Non-Campaign?

Two months before Fred Thompson’s friends insist he will formally declare for President, the former Tennessee senator and TV actor appears to be experiencing the kind of campaign shake-up that other candidates for President go through after months on the hustings.

Yesterday, the un-official manager of the unannounced Thompson campaign stepped down. CNN initially reported that Tom Collamore, former assistant U.S. Secretary of Commerce in the first Bush Administration, had resigned from the campaign over reported differences with Thompson and wife Jeri.  But Linda Rozett, spokeswoman for Friends of Fred Thompson, told reporters “he has not resigned.  He is continuing with the Friends of Fred Thompson as a senior advisor to the group.”  She went on to tell a colleague of mine that the unannounced campaign is “preparing to move on to another phase” and adding “some new, experienced political strength to the organization.”

By that, she meant former Secretary of Energy Spence Abraham and Randy Enright, former executive director of the Florida Republican Party.  Although no titles have been announced at this point, the duo will take over responsibilities for political operations.  Enright, who had been the chief operation office in the Sunshine State GOP in its triumphant election year of ’04, had already been expected to be political director of the Thompson effort.  Whether he will now have increased responsibilities is unclear.

But, to many pundits and pols,  the choice of Abraham to be at the top (or near the top) of a presidential campaign is a curious one.  As state Republican chairman in Michigan from 1983-90, Abraham did preside over the financial resurrection of the party in the state, the GOP takeover of the state senate after the recall of two Democratic lawmakers, and the election of a Republican governor in 1990 — the only GOP defeat of a sitting Democratic governor anywhere in the nation that year.  However, as operating head of the National Republican Congressional Committee that same year, Abraham also presided over a dismal midterm election performance in which the Republicans lost seats in the House.  As U.S. Senator from Michigan, the conservative Abraham appeared headed toward an easy re-election in 2000 but, in a nail-biter of a contest, he was unseated by Democrat Debbie Stabenow.  Since leaving the Bush Cabinet two years ago, Abraham and wife Jane  have been operating a consulting group in Washington, DC.

One source close to the former senator told me Abraham would be chairman or co-chairman of the Thompson campaign, that he would not be a full-time manager or paid for his work because of his diverse business interests.

The shake-up in the embryonic Thompson operation comes on the heels of the campaign-to-be signing on two conservative “issues men” to help the Tennessean lay out his positions:  Bill Wichterman, former top legislative man for former Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), and Joe Cella, former head of Fidelis, a Roman Catholic organization.  Cella “will play the same role that Tim Goeglin plays in the [Bush] White House, as a liaison to conservative organizations,” one source told me.