One week after he made it official and announced for the Republican nomination for President, Fred Thompson is getting mixed reviews for what could easily be dubbed the role of his life.
After weeks of media discussion and a much-publicized “exploratory” phase, the former Tennessee senator and television actor has probably gone further than anyone who has waited that long to make it official. Indeed, the latest NBC-News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that, among likely Republican voters nationwide, newly-minted candidate Thompson is running second to longtime front-runner Rudy Giuliani by a margin of 32% to 26%. (John McCain placed third in the same poll with 14%, and Mitt Romney was fourth with 11%). Thompson also continues to sign on major endorsements: as Thompson and the other GOP candidates were preparing to head for Mackinac Island, Michigan next week and another “straw poll” of GOP conventioneers, Michigan State Party Chairman Saul Anuzis (copiously neutral in the presidential sweepstakes) told me Thompson has picked up the endorsements of Rep. Thad McCotter (R.-Mich) and state House GOP Floor Leader Chris Ward.
Did Thompson’s relatively late start in the race hurt him? It depends on where you are. In Virginia and Mississippi, for example, State Republican Chairmen John Hager and Jim Herring respectively told me that so preoccupied are Republicans in their states with state elections this fall that there is next to no discussion of the presidential race the following year. Indeed, in Virginia, the two likely Republican combatants for the Senate nomination, Rep. Tom Davis and former Gov. Jim Gilmore, have put off their own declaration of candidacies until after the all-important races for the state legislature in November. So a candidate announcing in September for a presidential race the following year has no problem.
But in New Hampshire, site of the first-in-the-nation primary, Thompson could have a problem. State GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen, who made headlines by voicing irritation with Thompson skipping the presidential debates at the University of New Hampshire on the same evening he announced on the “Tonight Show,” pointed out that Thompson was introduced in the state at the seacoast home of former state House Speaker Doug Scammon and wife Phyllis and later in Nashua by Mayor Bernie Streeter. That’s all fine, but as Cullen added, “the Scammons are already committed to Rudy Giuliani and Mayor Streeter is for John McCain.”
“By getting in late,” Cullen concluded, “Fred may have missed out on the best activists to help him because so many of them are already committed elsewhere.”
National pundits have also begun to fire barbs at the Thompson balloon as it begins to rise. In his column September 13th, Robert Novak complains that potential Thompson backers across the country “wanted to board the Thompson camapgin but were repelled by his gate-keepers”– one of whom he identifies as longtime national GOP operative Mary Matalin. The same day, George Will’s Thompson commentary was even more devastating; in echoing liberal columnist Ruth Marcus, Will concluded that the former senator “is unfamiliar with the details of his own positions” and cites a rambling interview with radio hostess Laura Ingraham about his work to enact McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation.
Connecticut State GOP Chairman Chris Healy, also neutral in the race, told me: “Fred Thompson is very comfortable as a candidate and that shows in his public appearances so far. His campaign’s grasp of technology is superior to the other campaigns in terms of his website and using it to promote his candidacy. But he needs to break through with some big idea and to reap a lot of donors who have been sitting on the sidelines. If he does that by the next reporting period, Fred Thompson will be a player.”
In South Carolina, which finally decided to hold its primary January 19th (nine days after a debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.), State GOP Chairman Kaeton Dawson gives me just the opposite report of New Hampshire’s Cullen — that days after Thompson’s announcement, the Tennessean is getting endorsements from party heavyweights such as Rep. Gresham Barrett and State Sen. Dean Rice, and drew more than 500 people to Columbia. Dawson added that Thompson “took on moveon.org, as outlandish as they are, and got great applause when he said the U.S. ‘doesn’t have to apologize to anyone.’”
“Everyone gets a honeymoon in the early part of the campaign,” said Dawson, “How Fred Thompson handles the slings and arrows as the campaign goes on will determine how he does.”