Almost immediately after the launch of Fred Thompson’s long anticipated presidential candidacy, important neutral Republicans decreed privately that it had crashed and burned on takeoff. Many of these critics had wanted to board the Thompson campaign but were repelled by his “gatekeepers.” That helps explain their attitude now, and not merely because of bruised feelings caused by their exclusion.
Thompson’s late start in itself is not a fatal flaw. Still, it had been conceded in party circles that when he finally became a candidate, his beginning better be memorable. It was not. While Thompson voiced obligatory conservative slogans in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, he was not the white knight that worried Republican loyalists desperately desire. His debut might have been more blood-stirring had his gatekeepers not turned away talented helpers.
Thompson’s burial, nevertheless, is premature. The conditions persist that caused him, an actor supposedly finished with politics, to emerge suddenly in March as his party’s potential savior. The leading Republican contestants — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain — all have a glass jaw in the view of neutral Republican Mike Murphy (though Murphy says Thompson does as well). The Republican electorate is still looking for a forceful, dynamic conservative that many have thought Thompson might be.
Failure to utilize the last six months to craft an inspirational, exciting Thompson campaign can be partly explained by the exclusionist attitude by old friends and political professionals in possession of his candidacy. An example of who was excluded is Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign and is regarded as one of Washington’s keener political minds. He had contributed to McCain but had not committed to him and was ready to join Thompson’s team. Reed would provide Thompson with one experienced political manager who knows how to nominate a Republican for president.
Reed participated in one private meeting with Thompson, but got no further. Three separate sources told me that the gatekeeper who excluded Reed was Mary Matalin, a longtime Republican operative dating back to George H.W. Bush’s campaigns. She is a Washington insider who does not espouse the social conservative views that Thompson is expected to project by those Republicans in search of a nominee. Matalin did not return my telephone call.
Jeff Bell, an innovative conservative theoretician whose experience goes back to Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign, also wanted to help Thompson. His expertise could be invaluable for a candidate trying to fill the Reagan niche. Bell did not even get as far as a meeting with Thompson, though one was scheduled, abruptly canceled and then not rescheduled. What gatekeeper kept out Bell is unknown, but he was involved in a dispute many years ago with Ken Rietz, a Republican activist who was in charge of putting together Thompson’s campaign.
These are not isolated cases, but other Washington insiders who were repelled at the Thompson gates do not want the embarrassment of having their names published. One Republican activist, who excels as both a policy wonk and fundraiser, has repeatedly offered himself to Thompson — without a response. A high-level Bush administration official, with experience in politics and finance, has sent Thompson one resume after another — without a response.
The constricted Thompson circle may explain early shortcomings. Failing to perform opposition research on himself, Thompson has been taken by surprise by the dissection of his career. No new initiatives accompanied the unveiling of his candidacy. To skip the Sept. 5 debate in Durham, N.H., while announcing his candidacy on Jay Leno’s television program, was a startling affront to New Hampshire.
Thompson’s great asset remains the collective glass jaw of his opponents. Giuliani is not only a social liberal in a socially conservative party but is burdened with a life story that makes Democrats tremble with anticipation. Romney, who has transformed himself from liberal to conservative on social issues, to many Republicans seems a multi-millionaire investment banker willing to make any deal (though his biggest problem with evangelicals and strict Catholics is his Mormon religion). McCain seemed his old feisty self in the Sept. 5 debate, but on ABC’s “This Week” last Sunday, he came over as melancholy. So, there is still a void. But can Thompson fill it?