Bill Lacy: Advising Fred Thompson

As part of HUMAN EVENTS’ continuing series of interviews with key advisors to the GOP presidential contenders we spent some time with Bill Lacy, Campaign Manager for Fred Thompson. Lacy managed Thompson’s successful Senate races and has been involved in six presidential campaigns.

In the wake of a flurry of endorsements I asked Lacy: do they matter?

Lacy says that “most candidates would honestly say that they would like to have as many as possible” but that in reality they are “usually of limited value.” He notes that exceptions may be the endorsement of a key governor who controls the state party apparatus or if you see a “group of like-minded leaders all endorsing the same person.” As for social conservative leaders Lacy observes that since they are “splitting up” the result is that there is no “clear signal” to voters.

Is Lacy pleased where Thompson is in the race?

Lacy contends that Thompson is “exactly where he wants to be” He says that Thompson still registers in second place in some national polls.  However, Lacy places great emphasis on Thompson’s ability to use paid TV ads to his advantage. He notes that Thompson has just gone on the air in Iowa and next week will be up in South Carolina. Lacy argues that “a dollar worth of Fred on the air is worth 2 or 3 dollars of any of the others.”

What is Thompson’s electoral strategy for gaining the nomination?

Lacy explained that GOP strongholds in the South, non-industrial Midwest( e.g. Iowa) and interior West (e.g. Idaho, Colorado)  are reflected in the GOP delegate apportionment and represent as many as 328 delegates, or a quarter of the total. Lacy says that is “where we do best.” He acknowledges that South Carolina is “really critical” and Thompson’s task before that is to do well enough in places like Iowa, Wyoming, and New Hampshire so that voters still believe “Fred is competitive’ by the time South Carolina rolls around. (He acknowledges that Thompson has “pretty much struggled in New Hampshire but thinks Thompson has “strength” in Iowa.) He terms this “building a strategic bridge to South Carolina.” If Thompson “survives the winnowing” process before South Carolina, Lacy likes his chances there and in Florida leading to Super Tuesday where a batch of Red states can be claimed.

How much of Thompson’s candidacy is policy based and how much is about him personally?

Lacy responds that “a lot is Fred.” He reiterates the often heard appeal that Thompson has “not wanted to be President his whole life” but nevertheless has been “called to serve on a regular basis” as a prosecutor, Watergate lawyer and senator as well as his more recent effort in ushering John Roberts through Senate meetings for his Supreme Court confirmation process. He views Thompson’s approach as “fundamentally different” from the other contenders in that Thompson has attempted to lay out “the conservative principles which underlay all he does.” He stresses that Thompson offers voters the right “demeanor, personality and character” to be president.

Why do the media view his campaign so negatively?

Lacy asserts that there is “fundamentally a disconnect with the Beltway media mentality” and points to more positive local coverage as well as 150,000 donors and 200,000 voters signed up as “Friends of Fred” on the campaign website as evidence of grassroots enthusiasm for his campaign.

Will Thompson be out on the stump more?

Lacy says in the last 60 days “sprint” we will “see more” of Thompson although he explains that “he’s going to spend more time in preparation” for debates and other events because “he is not scripted.” He contends that Thompson was “never going to blow people away” but that he is “going to wear well over time when a lot of politicians turn people off.”

If Thompson’s strength is in GOP strongholds how will he do in a general election race?

Lacy humorously concedes that hasn’t spent “four seconds” thinking about which states would come into play in November with Thompson on the ticket but says that non-Republicans will be attracted to his “independent streak” and appreciate that he doesn’t always “tote the party line.” He also says that like Ronald Reagan, Thompson comes across as “a reasonable, very intelligent and thoughtful guy” and not just someone “spouting sound bites to push a lot of buttons.”

Will Thompson’s lack of executive experience be an issue?

Lacy argues that voters in campaigns he has been involved in were not “explicitly concerned” about executive experience but that voters do need to be assured that a candidate is “prepared to be President.” He asserts that Thompson clears that bar based on his Senate and other experience. He does observe however that not since JFK has there been someone elected who had not been a vice president or governor.

Will Thompson’s emphasis on federalism resonate with GOP voters?

Lacy contends that the “Goldwater-Reagan” portion of the party which values limited government and a “stay out of my life” philosophy still make up the larger share of the GOP. It is these voters he says who will respond to Thompson’s message. Nevertheless Lacy notes that there are “a substantial number of social conservatives who take another view” when it comes to fundamental issues like abortion.

Is Thompson running on an “authenticity” theme?

Lacy says that authenticity comes up in two ways. First, he explains that “what you see is what you get” is indeed part of Thompson’s personal appeal. However, Lacy also argue that it goes hand in hand with his message of being a “consistent conservative.” He allows that “You can accept it, if you care to, if the other guys have come around” on one or two conservative issues. However, he argues that they all have “multiple exceptions” to a conservative record and that “a lot of people don’t get why people all of the sudden are becoming conservative.”

What is ahead in the next 60 days?

Lacy says that in addition to immigration proposal and last Friday’s social security plan Thompson will “put out a barrage of ideas in a short period of time” and expects some “state leadership” endorsements. Most of all, however, Lacy is banking that the TV ad campaign — which he says has been “magic in the past” — will make the difference this time again.