Dan Balz's Take
After Tomorrow, One Less Thompson?
DES MOINES -- On the day before the day that could end his presidential candidacy, Tommy Thompson was typically upbeat. "I don't think [Mitt] Romney's going to win it easily," he said about the former Massachusetts governor, who has pumped more money by far into Saturday's Republican straw poll than any other candidate. "I think his support is very, very thin. I may be wrong on that. And I think at 110 degrees or 95 degrees or whatever it's going to be tomorrow, it's going to be tough to get anybody's voters there."
Thompson has said repeatedly he will quit the Republican race if he doesn't finish first or second in the non-binding test of organizational and popular support in Iowa. Many here doubt he will meet the test. In a few days, the former cabinet secretary and four-term governor of Wisconsin could be an early casualty in the 2008 race -- and forgotten quickly.
The presidential stars have never aligned for Thompson. He is one of the longest of long shots in the 2008 campaign after passing up opportunities to run in 1996 and 2000, when he was the most popular politician in Wisconsin and seen nationally as one of the most innovative and effective governors in the country. "I should have run in '96 and I should have run in 2000," he said over coffee at the only Starbucks in downtown Des Moines. "I got talked out of it. I would have been in a stronger position in both times because I would have been a sitting governor and just coming off huge successes in welfare and school choices."
Thompson said he talked himself out of the race in 1996 because he admired Bob Dole and thought it was Dole's turn. "I just thought he had worked for hard for the party and done so much he really deserved to have the nomination," Thompson said.
Four years later, his staff helped persuade him not to challenge George W. Bush, though Thompson was by far the more experienced state executive and made it clear he thought that was the case. "I wouldn't have beaten Bush," he said. "He had too much going in and too much money and too much star power. But if I would have run in '96, I would have been in very good position in 2000."
Thompson said he wanted to make clear he isn't feeling sorry for himself. "That's yesterday's news and nobody really cares about that except a few historians," he said. But still Thompson laments that the press does not take him seriously. He has, he believes, the best resume of anyone in the race. It is the same complaint being voiced by Democrats such as Joe Biden or Bill Richardson or Christopher Dodd. "They don't look at the resume," he said. "They're not looking at who is the most qualified to be president. They look at who's got the best looks, the best smile, the most money and is doing well in the polls."Those are all indicators, he acknowledged, but he would like to prove that money alone isn't the measure of presidential viability.
Thompson prides himself on his talents at retail campaigning, at the backslapping, hand-shaking, small-talking style that made him successful in Wisconsin and that he has hoped would work for him in Iowa.
He has attacked Iowa the old-fashioned way, with shoe leather rather than money. He hasn't missed a week in the state since last December. He has visited 110 towns and cities, touched down in all 99 counties. He recently wrapped up a 20-day bush tour and pleads with audiences to turn out for him in Ames on Saturday.
Others decry the early start, the length of the campaign, the dominance of small states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Thompson sees all that as a blessing. "It's the only way somebody like me has a chance to win it," he said. "If there was a regional primary, which people are advocating, it's only people with money who would have a chance."
Thompson has not sparkled in the Republican debates, which has made it more difficult for him to draw attention from the press. But his often-provocative criticism of his party has provided a lesson for those who are more in the limelight. In Thompson's view, Republicans are in no better shape today than when they lost the midterm elections last November. "We're still fumbling around," he said. "Republicans have got to be the party of ideas. The party's lost it."
Thompson sees the Republican race as wide open and has doubts about the viability of Romney, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. "I think everyone of the three frontrunners--Giuliani, McCain and Romney--are going to have difficult times getting the nomination."
And his namesake, Fred Thompson? "I think the other Thompson's got a fairly good chance," he said.
When Saturday dawns, Tommy Thompson will saddle up on a Harley-Davidson and ride into Ames with a bunch of motorcycle buddies. He did the same eight years ago, then in behalf of George W. Bush. This time he'll be looking to spring a big surprise and, he hopes, turn his attention to New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Not many expect that to happen, but Thompson isn't dwelling on what might happen in Ames--or what might have happened had he run when it might have been his time. "I have nothing to regret about those decisions and I certainly have no regrets about running this time," he said, "because I think we're going to make it a competitive race tomorrow."
-- Dan Balz
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