How serious a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination is Fred Thompson?
Apparently quite serious indeed. Last week GOP insider pundit Robert Novak assured readers that Thompson isn’t just toying with running—he will declare his candidacy early next month. This rumor has generated outsized buzz, including a highly negative column by George Will. But a great many conservatives, dissatisfied with a field in which none of the three leading contenders is a down-the-line conservative, seem to be fans.
The former Senator’s most salient attribute is his persona. He has a large, comforting, commanding presence that Hollywood directors have seen fit to cast as an admiral, the director of the CIA, and even the President. His slow drawl, big eyes, and wrinkles make him the very image of the respected Southern lawyer. He is an excellent communicator, sympathetic, easy to watch, and never grating (which is not true of, say, Rudy). Some go so far as to call his qualities “Reaganesque.”
But what about substance?
Thompson frequently fills in for ABC radio host Paul Harvey, and gives short “position paper” talks on issues. If recent ones are a guide, he is pro-defense, committed to winning in Iraq, opposed to civilization-wide surrender to Islamofascism, pro-immigration enforcement, and an economic conservative. It is worth noting, however, that these are only his stated positions. In his Senate years he supported McCain-Feingold on campaign-finance reform and lacked the political skill to turn the Chinagate hearings (which he chaired) into a substantive exposition of Bill Clinton’s arms-for-cash chicanery.
Thompson certainly has as much political experience as anyone from either party in this year’s not overly experienced crop. He served eight years as a U.S. Senator but has been in government and around politics much longer than that. His resume includes an early stint as a deputy U.S. attorney in his native Tennessee, after which he ran Howard Baker’s 1972 Senate campaign. He came to Washington to serve as co-chief counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee. He worked as a lobbyist for 18 years, and began his acting career accidentally enough in 1987, when the director of a movie about one of Thompson’s cases couldn’t find someone to play him, and so asked him to audition. After leaving the Senate in 2003, he joined the cast of the popular legal drama Law and Order.
Can Thompson catch up with the field money-wise, having missed the first quarter of fundraising? He is said to be able to raise “Hollywood money” (though Hollywood GOP money is a new concept). Thompson is not by any means known as a hard worker–and raising more than $1 million a week is hard work. His already-high name recognition, though, could offset the need for advertising dollars. Jumping in late also has the potential advantage of saving him from overexposure. John McCain is already suffering from this malady, having been the candidate-in-waiting since the end of the 2000 primaries. And Thompson polled high in March, beating Hillary in a Rasmussen match-up by a margin of 44 percent to 43 percent, and came in third in the Republican field (ahead of Romney) in a recent Gallup poll.
Last month the evangelical leader and talk-show host James Dobson announced that he won’t support Thompson. Dobson doesn’t think the former Senator is a real Christian, never having heard him discuss his Christian beliefs publicly. This won’t hurt, since no one meets Dobson’s test this year—and polls show Rudy Giuliani, a social libertarian who respondents feel is tough enough to stare down the nation’s very real enemies, running first. What may hurt Thompson, quite reasonably, is the fact that he has no executive experience.
Ten months out from the first primary, the GOP field remains fluid, as Republicans wait to see how the candidates fare over a very long campaign season. Thompson could easily end up on the ticket—but it’s not likely to be in the top slot.