In 1952, a noted editor wrote that Dwight Eisenhower was running for president "like a dry creek." His wry observation was credited with kick-starting what until then had been a non-campaign, with the famous general mainly content to rest on the laurels of a brilliant military career.
Without making too much of a comparison between former Sen. Fred Thompson and the late president and World War II Allied commander, it is appropriate to note that it probably is time for the lawyer/actor to do more than talk about the possibility of running for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. That is, if he is truly interested and wishes to avoid being washed away before he really starts by a flood of money and organization from the current announced field.
Thompson may or may not make that decision, as rumored within the next week or two, with the odds favoring the affirmative. But unless he does, his chances of building the necessary treasury and staff will be diminished dramatically despite polls showing that even his non-candidacy has him in third or fourth place as conservatives who make up a large segment of the party's base become less enchanted with the front-runners. That disenchantment grew dramatically recently when the leading contender, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, took a decidedly pro-choice stance on abortion.
Thompson's quick decision becomes increasingly imperative because of the front-loaded primary season. With the rush by states to have a major voice early in the selection process, there is little doubt the primary process will be over shortly after the first of next year. Florida recently moved up its primary to Jan. 29, only a week later than New Hampshire, the traditional opener after the earlier Iowa caucuses. South Carolina follows quickly and, on Feb. 5, voters will go to the polls in California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas and 17 other states to chose the party's nominee. This glut at the front, with states still jockeying for position, makes coherent campaigning except on a national media basis almost impossible, a far cry from the days when candidates worked hard to do well in Iowa and then New Hampshire.
Even with a solid organization available and the promise of financial support from major conservative sources, it won't be easy for Thompson to match the financial head start and resources of Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
According to sources, Thompson and his Tennessee buddies — including his mentor, former Senate leader Bill Frist, and former White House chief of staff and ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker — will meet this week to make some hard choices. Baker's respect within the party and the veteran campaigners loyal to him make Thompson's chances far better than they might otherwise be at this late date. His acting career plus his public service as a former Republican Watergate counsel and senator have given him a public persona that provides some leeway for a late start. But a small speech here and there without a major commitment just won't make it.
Compared to the top of the Democratic list of contenders, with Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois providing the star power, the Republicans don't have much glamour. McCain seems a bit worn down. His age and years as a prisoner of war may have taken their toll. His campaign has failed to generate anywhere near the excitement it did eight years ago, despite his efforts to overcome the animosity of conservatives with peace offerings. Giuliani has family trouble and difficulty explaining away past positions on social issues that upset the GOP base. To some degree so does Romney, who also faces questions about his Mormon religion. The rest of the crowd is pretty pale and can be expected to fade fast as the money gets dearer.
From every indication, a quick declaration from Thompson would not only produce a sigh of relief from conservatives who count him one of theirs but also party moderates who view him as sensible and open for accommodation on major issues.
The window is open, but for how long? Thompson, whose friends often consider him as sometimes too laid-back, needs to hoist his Tennessee frame through it now or pass up the opportunity. As they say in his home country: "Time's a-wastin'."
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)