Mackinac Island, Mich.
Fred Fizzles: Going back to when Fred Thompson first began exploring a bid for the presidency earlier this year and his first speech before the Lincoln Club of Orange County, California, through his address to the American Legislative Exchange Council in Philadelphia where he was on the same billing as presidential rival right up to his dinner speech this evening to the Michigan Republican Leadership Conference here, there is a strong case to be made that the former television actor just doesn’t live up to the advance reviews.
Sure, Thompson can deliver a stem-winder and draw widespread praise from an audience. This was the response when he addressed the annual Prescott Bush Dinner in Stamford, Connecticut that I attended in May.
But Stamford was the exception. The rule for Thompson is what happened last night.
Introduced by Rep. Thad McCotter (R.-Mich), the 65-year-old Thompson began on a high note, saying wife Jeri “would make a much better first lady than Bill Clinton,” and discussing Michigan’s beleaguered auto industry (Thompson said the American auto business is “not afraid of competition,” but foreign competitors must permit open markets and “quit devaluing their currency.”) He cited the late Russell Kirk of Michigan as an inspiration in his life, saying that after reading The Conservative Mind “I never thought the same again about fundamental principles.”
But it was downhill from there. The former Tennessee senator gave a rambling summation of his life, drawing his biggest applause when he spoke with pride about helping to confirm John Roberts as chief justice and saying that even though he was a part-time actor, “I never lived in Hollywood.” He insisted that he’s “not someone who hungred all these years to be president,” discussed his belief in tax cuts, quoted Adam Smit about not confusing the wealth of individuals with the wealth of nations.
“Underwhelming,” is how Bill Ballenger, editor of the influential “Inside Michigan Politics” newsletter characterized Thompson’s address.
Businessman Tom England of Gladstone, Michigan, who had described himself as “leaning to Fred” at the dinner the evening before, told me after Thompson’s remarks: “I’m a fan of Fred’s. But he needs to give me more. He was too laid back, he didn’t address a lot of issues. And I’m a country boy myself but Fred needs to get off my grand-daddy’s porch.”
The mediocre reviews came after a day in which Thompson had what a BBC Radio correspondent described to me as “the biggest scrum of all.” TV, radio and print supporters packed the porch of the Grand Hotel, where Thompson answered a grand total of five questions, and the former senator and his wife worked the hotel lobby, stopped to sign autographs and pose for pictures. Clearly, Fred Thompson drew the biggest buildup of any of the ’08 contenders arriving at the Grand Hotel–and clearly suffered the biggest letdown after his remarks.
McCain a Hit (No Sarkozy for Him): Seven years after he won the state’s presidential primary in a dramatic upset, John McCain clearly demonstrated that–at age 71 and with many polls in Michigan and nationwide showing him running fourth as the presidential favorite among Republicans–he still packs a wallop in the Water Wonderland.
To be sure, much of the applause for McCain and high marks for his address had to do with the fact he was the “clean-up batter:” Rudy Giuliani had been the previous evening’s dinner speaker and got rave reviews, while luncheon speaker Mitt Romney and earlier dinner speaker Fred Thompson drew mediocre reviews from many of the 2-3000 guests at the annual Michigan Republican Leadership Conference on Mackinac Island.
(In what was clearly different from the increasingly lower attendance at GOP events I have been covering this year, State Party Chairman Saul Anuzis told reporters that the attendance at this year’s Mackinac Conference was “the largest in the fifty-two year history of the conference.”).
Introduced with a film featuring fellow Vietnam POW Orson Swindle and McCain’s ninetysomething mother Roberta, the Arizona senator told jokes about trying to say something new was akin to being Zsa Zsa Gabor’s fifth husband (“I knew what to do but I was trying to make it interesting”) and how he used that line before being followed on a platform by the onetime husband of Elizabeth Taylor, Sen. John Warner (R.-VA), who didn’t think McCain’s joke was funny.
McCain then launched into a powerful address on the importance of US troops winning in Iraq, an issue he has been closely identified with and has suffered for in polls. He likened failure to complete the Iraqi mission to Ronald Reagan not being elected President at the height of the Cold War and denounced Columbia University for inviting the Iranian President to speak but not inviting the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) to recruit officers on campus. McCain closed his remarks with a strong tribute to the fighting US soldiers he met in Iraq.
Although it was not a traditonal address and rarely touched on his presidential campaign, McCain won the hearts of the Mackinac Conference–even though he will be hard-pressed to win the straw vote of guests conducted by the National Journal, that will be released tomorrow.
A footnote: In his remarks, McCain referred to Ronald Reagan half-a-dozen times and at one point quoted Pope Pius XII on the responsibility God has given the US in defending worldwide freedom. Recalling how Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, and Chairman Anuzis had all quoted French President Nicholas Sarkozy and cited him as a role model for American conservatives, my colleague from BBC-Radio whispered after McCain’s remarks: “No Sarkozy for him.”
Dems Target Two Michigan Repubs: Although presidential politics dominated the largest-ever Michigan Republican Leadership Conference here at the storied Grand Hotel, there were other significant political stories.
In what is increasingly becoming a pattern nationwide, Democrats have apparently recruited top tier candidates in two districts heretofore written off to Republicans–those held by Reps. Tim Walberg and Joseph Knollenberg.
Two years ago, former state legislator and conservative stalwart Walberg made headlines statewide by unseating incumbent Rep. Joe Schwartz for renomination in the 7th District (Battle Creek). Social issues dominated the debate, with Walberg taking a strong pro-life line and physician Schwarz styling himself pro-choice. In the fall, running against a Democrat and a Libertarian, Walberg won with an uncomfortable 49.9% of the vote in what has long been considered one of the safest districts in the Water Wonderland for Republicans.
Walberg has never relented from hs strong conservatism and at a breakfast here yesterday morning, the freshman lawmaker weighed in against the federal education program known as No Child Left Behind and reminded guests that he agreed with Ronald Reagan that the Department of Education should go away. Two heavyweight Democrats are vying for a crack at Walberg in ’08: former Adrian Mayor Jim Berryman and State Senate Democratic Leader Mark Schauer, who is “termed out” from the legislature. The race is complicated by the fact that Schwarz has hinted he may run as a Democrat or as an Independent.
Knollenberg, who has held the Oakland County district in Congress since 1992, is expected to face a challenge from former State Sen. Gary Peters, the ’02 nominee for state attorney general. Peters, who lost a close race to Republican Mike Cox, recently took a teaching job at an area college in Knollenberg’s district.