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Starting Gate: Thompson Finding His Feet?

To say that Fred Thompson's candidacy has failed to live up to its early hype is one of the great understatements of the campaign. But, for all the poor reviews and stumbles in the early weeks of his entry into the race, the former Tennessee senator looks to be righting the ship in recent days.

Thompson's early appearances found him wanting. He has seemed unprepared to answer questions that should be automatic for a presidential candidate, such as his views on drilling in the Florida Everglades and how he felt about the Terri Schiavo case. He looked nervous and spoke in broad generalities in his first debate, his fundraising has been on par with other Republicans but not breaking any records and his habit of taking days off at a time hasn't done anything to dispel questions of his drive and work ethic.

But in the past week, Thompson has emerged as something of a statesman in the Republican field. He has resisted the urge to make Hillary Clinton the centerpiece of his party's nomination process, saying, "I don't think we need to worry about Hillary Clinton as much as we need to worry about ourselves." His message of less government and tough choices has begun to meld together with his my-way approach to the campaign.

In an interview yesterday, Thompson said there was a reason he did not want to talk about the political upheaval that surrounded the death of Terri Schiavo, likening it to the death of his own daughter, Betsy, who died six days after being brought to the hospital after an accidental overdose.

"Obviously, I know about the Terri Schiavo case. I had to face a situation with that in my own personal life with my own daughter," Thompson said, according to the Associated Press. I know this is bandied about as a political issue, and people want to make it such and talk about it in the public marketplace a lot. I am a little bit uncomfortable about that because it's an intensely personal thing. These things need to be decided by the family, and I was at that bedside, and I had to make those decisions with the rest of my family. … I will assure you one thing, no matter which decision you make, you will never know whether or not you made exactly the right decision. So making this into a political football is something that I don't welcome. And this will probably be the last time I ever address it."

Thompson has been criticized in some quarters for being something of an empty suit. His personal story reveals that there is more to Thompson's poltical message than focus-group tested soundbites and wedge issues. It's a style that may yet wear well in the weeks to come.

Iran Not So Far Away? Iran has become a major issue in the Democratic primary, with candidates like Barack Obama and John Edwards taking aim at front-runner Hillary Clinton for, in their view, giving the Bush administration some level of cover for military action. Clinton has caught plenty of flack for her vote to urge the administration to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.

Now Republican candidates are getting more and more attention for their comments on the Iranian situation. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen today takes aim at Rudy Giuliani's promise to strike Iran should that nation gain a nuclear weapon under his watch. "This, of course, is both a cliche and the kind of rhetoric of the 'bring 'em on' variety that suggests Giuliani has learned nothing from the Iraq fiasco," writes Cohen.

Not that the other leading GOP candidates differ much, but Giuliani may be more tightly tied to that course of action than most. CBS News' Ryan Corsaro and Dean Reynolds report:

While Giuliani might say that military option is "on the table" to stop Iran from nuclear capability, one of his senior foreign policy advisors has expressed more extreme measures against the Iranian regime in the past.

Norman Podhoretz, a founder of the neoconservative movement who has been advising Giuliani on foreign affairs since June, has said in interviews that "there is no alternative to military action that will stop them. Not negotiations, not sanctions." Last June, Podhoretz published an article titled "The Case For Bombing Iran" and wrote "a bombing campaign would without question set back its nuclear program for years to come, and might even lead to the overthrow of the mullahs."

Giuliani is now using Podhoretz's term of "Islamo-facism" more often in his speeches, including one he made the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington on last week.

Norman Podhoretz served at the National Information Agency during the 1980's, and President Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004. Podhoretz says he met in the Oval Office with President Bush and Karl Rove in 2004 and tried to convince them to take military action against Iran.
Well, if we were to bomb the Iranians as I hope and pray we will," said Podhoretz in the summer of 2007, "we'll unleash a wave of anti-Americanism all over the world that will make the anti-Americanism we've experienced so far look like a lovefest." He noted that the global response would be a worst-case scenario, which he believes is unlikely to happen.

Giuliani has made it a priority to associate himself with his former boss, President Ronald Reagan, under whom Giuliani served as Assistant Attorney General. On several occasions in past months, Giuliani has reminded voters about the release of American hostages by Iran in 1981 -- the same day as Ronald Reagan was inaugurated - attesting to the view that Reagan's heavy-handed messages to Iran during his campaign broke the standoff as soon as he was sworn into office.

Giuliani recalled the same event in history on Thursday when asked about Iran while campaigning in Chicago. When asked whether he shares the views of Podhoretz on handling Iran, Giuliani started by saying, "Let me tell you what I think."

"The use of the military option against Iran would be very dangerous, and it should only be taken if every other possibility is exhausted."

Giuliani took a few moments to attack Hillary Clinton on the issue, who he said has a policy he found hazy, unlike Barack Obama, who he admits is clear in describing his views Iran. Unlike Obama, who previously said he would invite Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadenijad to the White House without preconditions for talks, Giuliani has a different approach.

"Negotiations have to be backed up by strong decisive decisions that people believe - then they're successful. When you're begging to negotiate, you're negotiating against yourself."

Pressed on whether or not he favored negotiations, Giuliani said, "I favor a United States taking a very, very strong position; increasing sanctions on Iran; getting our allies to cooperate in those sanctions; expanding the sanctions to include cutting of indirect investments...see what that produces. Then, if there's a change in position, and there's a chance you can work something out, then you think about negotiation."

Early States Get Spanked: RNC Chairman Mike Duncan sent letters to state parties in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan, Florida and Wyoming officially reminding them that they will lose half of their delegates to the Republican National Convention for ignoring party rules in scheduling early delegate-selection contests. Democrats is some of those states, particularly Florida and Michigan, have run afoul of their national leadership over the same issue.

Republicans in Iowa and Nevada also hold early contests, but were spared the stripping of delegates because they will formally select them later, reports the Washington Post. New Hampshire GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen is unconcerned, saying, "we will gladly pay the price. The New Hampshire primary isn't about delegates. It's about candidates proving their ability to win support across a broad electorate."

Around The Track

  • Barack Obama is under a little scrutiny for including gospel singer Donnie McClurkin in his upcoming South Carolina tour. McClurkin, according to the New York Times, "has gained notoriety for his view that homosexuality is a choice and can be 'cured' through prayer."
  • Mitt Romney's internal polling reportedly shows him picking up ground in South Carolina, but an independent poll suggests the Bob Jones III endorsement has not helped him in the state.
  • Iowa State University professor Steffen Schmidt is offering an online course explaining the Iowa caucuses in case you ever wanted to know the details about the Democrats' 15 percent rule.
  • Action star Chuck Norris says he's backing Mike Huckabee for president because the former Arkansas governor is "the only one who has all of the characteristics to lead America forward into the future."