The online “Fredheads” built buzz. Thompson, his wife, Jeri, and their advisers began assembling a campaign.
Then a cloud slowly moved over Planet Fred. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani had their pre-season workouts, honed their stump speeches and built vibrant organizations in the early-voting states.
Mike Huckabee, an evangelical conservative, got a bounce from zesty debate performances and a strong showing at the Iowa Straw Poll.
Had Thompson missed his window? Has his niche been filled? Some activists complain that he’s the cute girl who rebuffs you so long that you lose interest.
So what looked promising now looks merely possible. But Thompson advisers say they remain optimistic. And most of all, they say their candidate is raring to go.
Here’s the argument they make for how Thompson could come from way behind to become the party’s nominee:
-- Against rivals who can seem alien, programmed or off-putting, Thompson looks down-home and approachable.
He’s bald and roly-poly (though slimmer than before), and anything but robotic. At a time when Washington’s out, Southern charm looks appealing — even though he’s a former lobbyist who lives in McLean, Va.
-- Star power has always made a difference through political history, and even more so in a culture saturated with mass media. Thompson advisers say that because of his roles in NBC’s “Law & Order,” the big-screen “The Hunt for Red October” and other acting gigs ranging from “Matlock” to “Die Hard 2,” people recognize his face, even if they don’t know the name.
“Once you recognize the face, you’re more likely to listen to the voice,” said one of Thompson’s longtime advisers. “It’s distinctive. It’s Southern. It’s homey.”
-- Thompson — from his calm manner to his teddy-bear-like physique — cuts a soothing persona at a time when polls show that voters are extremely worried about security. “He’s the biggest daddy bear around,” chortled one longtime friend.
-- In a season when politics is a game of inches when it comes to policy, Thompson plans to challenge voters to think big.
Aides say his campaign platform will offer ambitious solutions to some of the most gigantic problems facing the nation and the world, including nuclear proliferation and a system of entitlements — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — that looks financially unsustainable.
-- Campaign officials bill their man as a “consistent, comprehensive conservative” — a none-too-subtle dig at Romney, who took socially moderate stands when he was a successful candidate for Massachusetts governor, and Giuliani, who as New York City mayor supported abortion rights and protections for gay people.
-- Thompson has advisers from the Reagan administration and both Bush administrations, a sign that he’ll be able to bring together disparate wings of the Republican Party, including those who care more about fiscal concerns and those focused on tax issues.
-- The lease has long expired on the red pickup truck that was a prop in his race for U.S. senator from Tennessee.
So Thompson will roll out of Des Moines, Iowa, this week in a luxury bus emblazoned with the slogan “Security, Unity, Prosperity” — a bid to tap into the muscular optimism that President Ronald Reagan’s image-makers evoked with their “Morning in America” theme.
-- Giuliani and Romney have well-known weaknesses and could falter in the fall. Thompson advisers admit this is an essential part of any winning recipe for their fledglincampaign. “There’s no best-case scenario,” one Thompson friend said. “The other guys have to implode.”
Thompson’s most enthusiastic backers admit that’s a lot of “ifs,” but they think they have a candidate who’s tailor-made to thrive at a time when Republicans are desperate for a Hillary-slayer.
“I think the ship is righting itself,” one adviser said in an e-mail. “If the public responds and he has a good fundraising month, he’s in business.
The staff turmoil is clearly out of the ordinary and disturbing, but the campaign now has the team it wants, and they’ll be able to work together. We will know soon enough how well the stuff in front of the curtain plays.”