Politics, like life, is so much about timing. And Fred Thompson missed his chance to get in the race and become the natural alternative for GOP primary voters.
That’s the rap, writ large, against the former senator from Tennessee from opposing campaigns and neutral observers alike.
But let’s take the argument against a successful Thompson run one point at a time:
-- “Geometry is destiny,” argued one adviser to Republican candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. To translate, Thompson’s opportunity to become the third option in what has largely been a two-man race between Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been lost.
“He missed the first on-ramp in Iowa, and [Mike] Huckabee didn’t,” observed the Romney source, alluding to Thompson’s decision to skip last month’s Ames Straw Poll, in which the former Arkansas governor finished a solid second.
“So now there are two guys fighting for the same political turf. ... Now, he’s got to pass somebody he didn’t have to earlier.”
But it’s not just Huckabee who was granted an opening with Thompson staying on the sidelines. The “Law & Order” actor also “breathed life into a Romney candidacy that easily could have been snuffed out before it had begun,” political analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote in a column this week.
An adviser to Giuliani agrees that Thompson lost his chance to have exclusive rights to the “none of the above” box that so many GOP primary voters have been checking this year.
But this source argued that it’s because of Giuliani’s continuing dominance of GOP national polls, rather than a Huckabee surge or a Romney ascension.
“There are a number of people competing to make this a two-man race, to be the alternative to Rudy,” said the Giuliani adviser. “But people are finding that they don’t need an alternative to Rudy.”
-- In an accelerated contest that could be decided by the mega-round of primaries on Feb. 5, Thompson will have a tough time matching the organizational and fundraising strengths of opponents who have been planning this campaign for months, if not years.
Thompson raised less money than advertised in June, seemed to admit that his summer fundraising had been lackluster and has just 24 more calendar days this month to make up for it before he must file his first full fundraising report for the preceding three months.
And of the money Thompson’s already spent, a chunk of it went to operatives and advisers who are no longer working for the campaign.
To be sure, there are still talented staffers and activists to be snatched up. But Thompson effectively has to put together a national and early-state organization on the fly. It’s not an easy task.
As Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics put it: “There is no indication yet that Thompson will be able to raise the kind of money needed to compete at the highest level,” nor is there any sign that he “has the kind of on-the-ground organization needed to win caucus events.”
-- Even if Thompson can cobble together sufficient infrastructure and capital, his rationale for running and his preparation for the job are wanting.
To be blunt: What exactly in his background makes Thompson presidential timber or even reinforces his campaign pitch that he’s a consistent and comprehensive conservative?
“His record really has to back up the rhetoric that they’re putting out there,” said the Giuliani adviser, “and it just can’t. I’m not certain that they’re going to find the consistency they suggest when you’ve got a pro-life and pro-choice file in your archives in Tennessee.”
What’s more, this source said, “when yo compare his experience from an executive governing level, he’s sort of the lightest of the bunch.”
And then there is Thompson’s overarching theme — that he’ll slay a few sacred cows and tell the hard truths the country needs to hear.
Setting such lofty expectations, Sabato said, could set him up for the memorable question Walter Mondale asked of Gary Hart in the 1984 Democratic primary: “Where’s the beef?”
Moreover, “to attract the party’s and the media’s attention, he might well have to propose unpopular ideas or ideas that alienate some big constituency within the GOP,” Sabato said. “Good luck with that; it’s handing your opponents a mallet with which to beat you over the head. People always say they love candidates who tell them what they don’t want to hear. They just rarely vote for them.”
-- Lastly, there is the knock that almost everybody has heard by now: Fred is just plain lazy. It’s become so cemented, fair or not, as part of the campaign narrative that Newsweek even put it on its cover this week (if only to partially debunk it; “Lazy Like a Fox,” read the headline).
“We’ve seen the toll the presidency exacts,” the Romney adviser said, trying to remain subtle, and “we know the whole complicated range of issues out there.”And Thompson has shown that “he’s able to restrain his work ethic,” needled this Romney source.
Thompson may not have the experience that Ronald Reagan did leading the conservative movement, but the two actors do share one common trait: a belief that hard work never killed anybody but an aversion to testing the possibility.