For conservative politicians to attack the liberal media is always a winner. Rudy Giuliani has fenced with the New York Times and the New York tabloids for years. Mitt Romney has gone toe to toe with the Boston Globe. But when a conservative attacks Fox News — and two widely respected conservative commentators — we have to ask, “what the heck?”. And that’s just the question raised by Fred Thompson’s appearance on Fox News Sunday yesterday.
Thompson, who has been falling in the national polls and is in fourth or fifth place in many New Hampshire and Iowa polls, was interviewed by Chris Wallace. The sequence went as follows:
“WALLACE: I want to talk — we have a couple of minutes left — about your situation in the polls, because there is a buzz out there, and you know it, that your campaign has been disappointing.
And we have a poll that shows that you’ve actually dropped 10 points in the latest Fox News national poll since you came in in September. But it’s not just the numbers.
THOMPSON: Well, you know how…
WALLACE: Well, can I just — may I just finish my question? Then you can say what you want. It’s not just the numbers. I want to show you what two conservative commentators had to say about your campaign this week. Here it is.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FRED BARNES, WEEKLY STANDARD: It’s the wrong message and a weak messenger. Other than those two things, it’s a great campaign.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, COLUMNIST: Thompson offers the folksy manner of a consistent conservative, but there’s not anything there. And in the absence of something, he can’t win.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WALLACE: Senator, I suspect you’ve gotten a few bad reviews for movies or T.V. shows in the past, but that’s pretty tough stuff. How do you respond?
THOMPSON: Yes. It’s a lot of the same kind of stuff that I heard when I first ran for office, when I was 20 points down. And fortunately, I wound up 20 points ahead on election night.
This has been a constant mantra of Fox, to tell you the truth. And I saw the promo for this bill, and I think it was kind of — for this show, and it was kind of featuring the New Hampshire poll.
Let’s put things in context a little bit, to start with.
WALLACE: Well, I don’t know that —- I mean, I don’t know that Fox has been going after you, and I certainly don’t think Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes…
THOMPSON: From day one, they said I got in too late, I couldn’t do it.
WALLACE: But there were a lot of people besides Fox who said that, sir.
THOMPSON: Well, but I’m — these are the two you used.
THOMPSON: All right. Well, they said I got in too late, couldn’t do it…
THOMPSON: … wouldn’t raise enough money, and that sort of thing. And that’s their opinion. They’re entitled to their opinion.”
Thompson went on to contend that in “the national polls, you’ll see that I’m running second and have been running second for a long time.” We went on to cite polls in South Carolina where he is running better and claimed to be ahead of Giuliani in Iowa (in fact he is in fourth in the Realclearpolitics.com[RCP] poll averages.) He then argued: “So you know, they’re entitled to their opinion, but for you to highlight nothing but the negative in terms of these polls, and then put on your own guys, who have been predicting for four months, really, that I couldn’t do it, you know, kind of skews things a little bit.”
He pointed to a National Review Online editorial praising him but seemed stumped when Wallace asked “Do you know anybody who thinks you’ve run a great campaign, sir?” Seeing the “cite the pundit” game was not working to his advantage Thompson dropped it and declared: “It’s not for me to come here and try to convince you that somebody else thinks that I’ve run a great campaign.” The segment ended with Thompson arguing: “And if you get past New Hampshire and look at some of these other states — states that I’m leading in the south, for example — and straw polls that I’ve won, endorsements that I’ve got — I’ve got more endorsements in the state of Georgia than all the other candidates put together. … But you have the right to put in your one side, and put in the Fox side, and I have the right to respond to it. And thankfully, you’ve given me that opportunity.”
What to make of this exchange? It is indicative of the situation Thompson finds himself in — trailing in the RCP poll averages in all pre-February 5 states and slipping farther behind Giuliani nationally — that he should find himself on the defensive in an exchange, not on CNN or CBS but on Fox. Although he recently received the endorsement of the National Right to Life Committee it is unclear whether he can convert this to improved poll numbers, especially in Iowa where social conservatives seem to be rallying to Governor Mike Huckabee.
Beyond his pique at Fox, Thompson’s revelation that he is essentially banking on Southern states to capture the nomination may be of greater concern to his supporters. Although February 5 states like Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee do provide openings for Thompson, he plainly cannot capture the nomination without expanding his appeal beyond the South, nor can he address GOP voters’ concerns about electability in November by characterizing himself as a candidate with just regional appeal.
So rather than shoot the Fox messenger Thompson would do well to continue his roll out of substantive proposals (he has already addressed military preparedness, social security and immigration), step up his campaign pace and fire his guns at his opponents, rather than conservative commentators dismayed that he has not run the campaign many conservatives were hoping he would.