Fred’s waiting game

While Fred Thompson’s minimalist strategy in the Republican presidential sweepstakes seems to defy all the conventional wisdom so far it seems to be working. With the polls showing the former senator turned actor tied for second with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in Iowa and close to that in other key primary states, Thompson appears almost to be defying the laws of political gravity.

He reminds one of the man who fell off the 20-story building and as he passed each floor was heard to say, “Well, so far so good.”

Whether or not Thompson will land on his feet when he finally hits the ground of a declared candidacy — if in fact he does — is the subject of intense speculation among political junkies and media pundits, many of whom believe that waiting until just four months before the first primary to formally announce a candidacy is a recipe for disaster. How can he possibly build the organization needed for such a tremendous undertaking in such a short time?

Those on the negative side of Thompson’s strategy note that the other candidates are well ahead in both on-the-ground staffing in key states and the treasuries needed to sustain an all out campaign. They argue not unconvincingly that the former Senate Watergate counsel can’t wait much longer than the next three weeks if he is to have any chance of catching up. The most pessimistic analysts contend it already is too late.

But there is another body of opinion that believes there are two obvious factors mitigating in Thompson’s favor as he approaches the September deadline he seems to have set for making a formal announcement.

The voters in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire and other early primary states are surfeited by the barrage of conventional stumping from the other candidates that has gone on for more than a year. Second and most importantly, there is little actual enthusiasm for any of the declared GOP candidates, including Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the leader in Iowa, especially among the more conservative elements of the party who see Thompson as a legitimate espouser of positions they endorse and not just expedient converts like Romney.

Those who would condemn Thompson’s seemingly lethargic pursuit of the Republican nomination also are ignoring another factor — that it is based on a plan carefully worked out by veteran advisers not the least of whom is former Senate leader and White House chief of staff Howard Baker, his longtime friend and mentor, and a number of other experienced political hands with long records of success. A part of the strategy relies on the fact that his almost daily appearance as the make-believe prosecutor on the venerable “Law and Order” television series makes him the one aspirant who doesn’t need to buy television time. The minute he declares that advantage disappears because of the equal time rules. NBC has made it clear that it not only will have to drop him from the show, but more importantly discontinue reruns in which he appears.

Then there is the wife factor. The mainstream media seem fascinated by Jeri Thompson’s looks, her front row presence and her undeniable influence on Thompson, who is 26 years older. It is the latter that causes tongue clucking among pundits who view her as a political novice with high ambitions. But once again that argument misses the fact that she adds a sex appeal and virility to Thompson that is lacking in some of the other candidates and is unquestionably attractive to younger voters. At the same time the couple’s two small children — a second family for Thompson — brings a solid domestic image to the picture. His first marriage ended in divorce but he didn’t remarry until after his former wife had. Unlike Giuliani, his older offspring appear to have good relations with their father.

If these primaries were all about issues, it would be one thing. They aren’t. They are about image. Whoever has the most charisma is the likely winner in these events. It is movie star appeal mixed with his public service and political experience that gives him a leg up and makes his waiting more feasible than it might otherwise be.

Conventional wisdom notwithstanding this may be a time when less proves to be more.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)

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