Tennessee Two-Step

White picket fence with green grass iStockphoto

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.



The "grass is always greener" syndrome is notoriously acute in presidential campaigns. The candidates who aren't running often look better than the ones who are — guys like Mario Cuomo, Colin Powell and, I guess, William Tecumseh Sherman.

This spring the political grass seems especially green in the fair state of Tennessee.

Al Gore, some think, is flirting with taking a stab at the Democratic nomination and some think that's an, um, interesting idea. The gentleman who took Gore's seat when he became vice president in 1993, Fred Thompson, is flirting with a run for the Republican nod — flirting to the point of lechery. A lot of people seem to think this is a very good idea.

There's a whole bass pond of ironies in all this. Al Gore, by any semi-detached measure, is the more accomplished public figure, but Fred Thompson is the one whose party is pining.

This could be a time of great vindication for Gore, but it isn't. The man who won the popular vote in 2000 is watching the man who got the electoral votes set new records for presidential disapproval. The man who was teased as Mr. Ozone decades ago turned out to be far-sighted and clear-sighted. He even won an Oscar for his role as Mr. Ozone. And as for the information superhighway, well, you're driving on it right now, aren't you?

The problem for Gore, apart from the eternal Gore problem (wooden, oddly-cadenced and slightly tone deaf), is that his party is downright tickled by the slate of candidates they already have. Indeed, 63 percent of Democrats in last week's CBS News/ New York Times poll are satisfied with their candidates. Gore would just be trouble.

But Thompson, a skilled character actor and sometime politician, is ably playing the part of the reluctant ringer coming off the bench. His public career was brief. As a young man, destiny allowed him to ask one of the most famous questions in American politics, "Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office President?" Mr. Butterfield was aware of such a device. And two years later, Mr. Thompson was a Washington lobbyist.

Thompson has run for office twice, in 1994 and 1996. He retired from the Senate in 2002 after eight successful but not earth-shattering years. He's 64 years old, and has had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

What Thompson has going for him is that 57 percent of the Republicans in that last CBS News poll want more candidates in the race. They don't like their horses. This is especially true of the more socially conservative Republicans who can't seem to get cozy with McCain, Giuliani or Romney. So Thompson does respectably in the polls and has milked his "grass is greener" allure as long as possible. But time is running out on that act.

When Thompson is officially official as a candidate, he'll most likely be just one of the boys. Conservatives will take another look at his early record, which has possible signs of pro-abortion rights behavior. That will be just the start of the snooping. His acting has brought him terrific name ID, sure, but Hollywood is also the cradle of 21st century Satanism for many conservatives and even some columnists who scribble on the information superhighway.

But the irony that could really matter in the fall of 2008 is this: the satisfaction of partisans with the primary candidates doesn't mean that independents and eclectics — the bulk of the voters in the general — will like their nominees. Conversely, just because partisans don't like the field much, it doesn't follow that general election voters will dislike their nominee, too.

It is certainly easy to imagine McCain, Giuliani or Romney doing well in a general. And it is certainly easy to imagine Clinton, Edwards and Obama doing poorly.

In fact, in a thought experiment where a mercenary campaign consultant looked at the candidates in isolation, in some kind of current events vacuum, he or she would probably want to work on the Republican side. And that implies that it's the Democrats who should be looking at the grass on the other side of the fence, not the Republicans.

It's a testament to those record-setting disapproval ratings of President Bush that Democrats like themselves and Republicans don't. That's why Al is out and Fred is in.

And it's probably why the Republican grass will still look greener after Thompson has been official for awhile.

The One Righteous Answer is that the Republicans need a candidate who will aggressively and brilliantly run against George Bush. That's the view of Newt Gingrich, at least. He thinks that America is ripe for the Sarkozy Gambit, named for the new French President who ran against his party leader, Jacques Chirac.

I know you'll be surprised to learn that the man Newt Gingrich thinks can pull off this epic political pirouette is none other than Newt Gingrich. I guess green grass takes a lot of fertilizer.



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By Dick Meyer
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