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Not Ready for Takeoff?

Can the wheels come off a wagon that hasn't left the assembly line?

That is the Jesuitical question for Fred Thompson's campaign-in-the making as he reports to the IRS today that he raised approximately $3.4 million in the month of June.

After a week of staff shakeups and a financial report that fell short of expectations Thompson's people set for themselves, Republican strategists wonder whether the former Tennessee senator's campaign is experiencing something far more worrisome than normal growing pains.

First the signs of trouble:

Money: While not shabby, the financial report suggests fundraising is far more difficult than Thompson and some of those around him may have anticipated. Veteran fundraisers all tell the same story: raising tens of millions of dollars for a presidential campaign takes organization, time, enthusiasm and a belief on the part of donors that they're backing a winner. Any sign of weakness vastly complicates the hunt for money.

Polls: The good news for Thompson is that he has surged into second place in most polls. The bad news is that he is still well behind Rudy Giuliani in national polls and well behind Mitt Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire. The only place where he is rising to the top of the heap is in South Carolina.

Looked at another way, after several months of extraordinarily positive news, Thompson is roughly tied with John McCain in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, though McCain has suffered through several months of terrible news.

Campaign organization: The man Thompson recruited to organize his campaign, Tom Collarmore, was forced out last week. At this point, it's not clear who the campaign manager will be. Thompson's wife Jeri has been intimately involved in campaign operations and, according to one strategist, was running staff meetings last week.

Veteran strategist Randy Enwright is in charge of political operations and he brings a wealth of experience and deep knowledge of Florida. Former energy secretary and ex-senator Spence Abraham has been tapped to chair the campaign, but he also has his own business to run. There's no sign of serious organizing in the early states. In short, much work needs to be done to build the infrastructure for a winning campaign.

Message: What is Thompson's rationale for running? In his pre-announcement travels, Thompson has been heralded as the next Ronald Reagan, but his message has lacked the crispness or clarity of the Gipper in his prime. While it hasn't been necessary for Thompson to have a fully developed message during this testing the waters stage, he will have to have one if and when he announces.

A strategist in a rival campaign described the situation in Thompson's campaign as "total chaos. They don't even have the basic feel for the fundamentals of a presidential campaign."

Another strategist from another campaign said that Thompson at least will enter the campaign as a serious candidate, but added, "Going from serious candidate to winning candidate takes a while. They have to put together a campaign team, they have to raise a lot of money and they have to get out there and campaign."

"The campaign's been on the vine too long," said. John Weaver, whose experience in McCain's campaign gives him some expertise on campaign turmoil. "But having said that, he's entering the most fluid situation, at a comparable stage, in modern Republican Party history. The question is, when will his announcement be? What will be his themes and how will he conduct himself in the time period following that?

Another strategist agreed that Thompson may have stretched out his testing-the-waters phase too long. "It strikes me people are getting very anxious for the Fred Thompson campaign to begin and if they're going to go, they need to go," he said.

Now the not-so-bad news:

Talking with rival and independent GOP strategists makes it clear they are not drawing overly dire conclusions about the state of Thompson's campaign. Given the fact the he has never run a national campaign or been heavily involved in organizing one, it's not surprising, they say, that he has hit some bumps in the start-up phase.

They also noted that few voters know or care much about Thompson's new financial report or the internal staff machinations that have drawn the attention of political insiders. "What matters more is, do you have a message that sells?" said Terry Nelson, who was McCain's manager until a few weeks ago and was a senior official in President Bush's campaign.

Signs still point to a September launch for the Thompson candidacy. Veteran strategists expect that, once that happens, Thompson will get a boost in the polls, as Giuliani did earlier this year when his support surged as it became clear he would be a candidate.

Then comes the more difficult period, when the hype about a Thompson candidacy will have met the reality of life on the campaign trail. By late fall, Thompson will either have lived up to the advance billing or seen his star fade.

Given reservations about Giuliani, McCain and Mitt Romney among GOP conservatives, Thompson may have more control over his own fate than his rivals. "He will have an opportunity -- I'm not suggesting he'll seize it -- to coalesce a large part of the base around him if he is able to conduct himself and run an aggressive campaign after Labor Day," Weaver said.

Thompson hasn't come close to doing that during his testing-the-waters summer. The question is whether, as a real candidate, he will have the drive, the discipline and the message to turn an attractive concept into a winning campaign.

--Dan Balz

By Post Editor  |  July 31, 2007; 12:27 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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