Fred Thompson had his first full week on the campaign trail. It was a mixed debut for the Law and Order star.
In South Carolina he received his warmest reception of his new campaign. Although 350 people on a weekday was not an overwhelming show of support, the enthusiasm of the crowd was palpable. It also was an increase over smallish crowds in Iowa and New Hampshire. Thompson’s ease before a southern crowd showed he is an effective and engaging campaigner when on comfortable terrain.
Another positive development for Thompson could be found in initial polling. According to one opponent, he should enjoy as much as a 13 pt. “bump” coming into the race. And indeed, a CBS/New York Times national poll showed Thompson closing to within 5 points of Rudy Giuliani while a CNN poll showed him only 1 point back.
Thompson also got the chance to seize the political high ground when a nasty negative website directed at him was tied to a supporter of Mitt Romney. Thompson’s communications director grabbed the opportunity to label his chief conservative competitor as the candidate who “will do anything, say anything, smear any opponent and flip flop on any position in order to win.”
But Thompson also showed the lack of practice in fielding questions and avoiding political pitfalls. In South Carolina he opined that Osama Bin Laden should receive “due process” if captured. Commentators were soon to draw comparisons to Howard Dean who mused along similar lines in 2000. Thompson’s communications director Todd Harris tried to smooth over the bobble by suggesting that Thompson was simply suggesting Guantanamo like procedures and a full interrogation for Bin Laden.
Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee continued to nip at Thompson’s heels, urging him to debate in Lincoln-Douglas style forums as Thompson himself had suggested on his Jay Leno debut. Thompson’s camp was having none of that and it is unclear when Thompson will finally step on a stage with his competitors.
What is still a mystery is the message and rationale of his candidacy. His slogan: “Security, Unity, Prosperity” gives few clues. Although he impressed Washington Post’s David Broder with the prospect he would focus on entitlement reform he was quick to say this week that he would not provide any specific proposal but merely suggest a post-election commission.
So if Thompson’s entry did not remove all doubts about his candidacy there are several steps which would go a long way toward improving his chances of capturing the nomination.
First, he can take a page from Rudy Giuliani’s “12 Commitments” book and in simple, clear terms set out 6 or 8 policy objectives that explain what his campaign is about and what his presidency would accomplish. “Security, Unity, and Prosperity” sounds more like a Chinese fortune cookie than a presidential platform. However, if he presents clear policy objectives he may both preclude a Newt Gingrich run and give voters a sense he is a focused candidate with real ideas.
Second, he can roll out an all star panel of military and foreign policy gurus to chart a post-Bush foreign policy. Where do we go after the surge and what do we do about rogue, soon-to-be nuclear-armed states? By displaying a team of well respected military and foreign policy experts advising him, Thompson can convey that he can recruit top talent and is serious about laying the groundwork to strengthen our military and define legitimate American foreign policy goals.
Third, he can define an electoral strategy, putting needed resources on the ground that will show he has the organizational finesse to win. Spending three days in New Hampshire and Iowa only to have his campaign manager say expectations should be “low” for these states only confuses supporters and provides media watchers with a storyline when he underperforms in states not crucial to his run. If he intends to make his stand in South Carolina and Florida (where he may start with a base of support and have a realistic chance to win) he should expend time and hire substantial staff to show he is determined to win in these states.
Fourth, in unscripted moments he must be careful what he says and how he says it. Accusing Cuban immigrants fleeing Castro of being a terrorist threat (as he did in Florida this summer) or mimicking Howard Dean on due process for Bin Laden may be silly slips of the tongue but with the entire press corps and opposing candidates watching these unforced errors need to be stopped .
Fifth, he should explain his electability rationale. Republicans are concerned about beating Hillary. While emphasizing his southern roots may endear him to Red state voters he needs to explain how he can appeal to independents and geographically diverse voters as someone above the Washington fray. He can borrow a page from Barack Obama and explain how he can reach across ideological lines and offer leadership without the animus that lately has characterized the White House’s relationship to Congress.
Finally, he mend fences with conservatives on McCain-Feingold and the political issue ad ban which he previously supported. Many conservative activists and First Amendment proponents are convinced it was a mistake for him to sponsor the bill and defend it before the Supreme Court. If he has seen the light and recognizes the error of curbing First Amendment rights, he should come right out and say so. It will set a tone of honesty and repair frayed relations with groups like the Club for Growth that will be key to establishing his conservative bona fides.
In short, the window of opportunity is open for a short time to get his house in order and live up to his star billing. Unless he does, he runs the risk he will simply be another bit player in the run for the White House.