Dan Balz's Take
A Front-Runner or The Wes Clark of 2008?
Fred Thompson's path to the Republican nomination is daunting and difficult. It is also plainly obvious.
The former Tennessee senator, who will formally join the crowded Republican field next week, has had a long and uneven preparatory spring and summer. Many Republicans, including (privately) at least one of his rivals, believe he has missed his moment.
At the Thompson headquarters, the newly installed team of advisers has no illusions about the difficulties they face with a late entry and a campaign whose infrastructure is still being assembled. But they share a belief that their candidate has the raw talent to distinguish himself against the rest of the GOP field and a sense of how to navigate the chaotic calendar and geography of the nominating contest.
For Thompson as for everyone else, it begins in Iowa. Winning Iowa may be out of the question for Thompson at this point, but a strong showing in a state known for its right-leaning GOP electorate is crucial to establishing his claim on the conservative wing of the party.
He starts there at a considerable disadvantage. Mitt Romney has spent millions to build an organization, to win the Ames straw poll and to establish a lead in the polls of Republican activists. Complicating his situation in Iowa are the emergence of Mike Huckabee as a credible conservative candidate, thanks to his second-place finish in the straw poll, and the fact that Rudy Giuliani has noticeably stepped up his activity in the state.
Thompson advisers expect New Hampshire to be far more difficult. By skipping next week's New Hampshire debate, Thompson delivered a clear snub to Republican voters there. George W. Bush did the same in 1999 and paid dearly for it.
That decision reflects his campaign's assessment that New Hampshire is not hospitable territory for Thompson. Romney lives next door, John McCain will be making what amounts to a last stand in a state he won eight years ago and Giuliani has set his sights on capitalizing on McCain's slide to appeal to an electorate that is passionate about low taxes but more moderate on social issues. That leaves little room for Thompson.
South Carolina, traditionally a state that has consistently gone with the eventual GOP nominee, will be Thompson's first must-win state. At this point, it sets up as a test of strength between Thompson's Southern roots and Giuliani's unexpectedly strong appeal as a tough-talking potential commander-in-chief -- with Huckabee a potentially nettlesome problem for Thompson as a fellow southerner and rock-ribbed conservative. South Carolina is for Romney what New Hampshire is for Thompson.
Then comes Florida and a potentially decisive contest heading into the mega-primary day of Feb. 5. If Thompson defeats his rivals in Florida, he will be in a far better position to weather what could be a delegate-bonanza for Giuliani on Feb. 5, when New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are among the states in play.
It may be a mere coincidence, but Randy Enwright, Thompson's political director, has roots in both Iowa and Florida. Many years ago, he served as executive director of the Iowa Republican Party. More recently, he has established himself as one of the most knowledgeable and effective GOP strategists in Florida.
The big Feb. 5 states have drawn attention, rightly, for the size of their electorates. But for Thompson, the day's calendar offers Thompson the opportunity for a string of smaller victories.
Among the states with contests that day are: Thompson's home state of Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri and Oklahoma. They won't produce the delegates of the big states, but by winning Florida and running the table in the South and border areas, Thompson would be in a strong position to challenge for the nomination.
Thompson's entry will have three immediate consequences. First, it will finally give Republicans a sense that they have a full complement of candidates. As one strategist put it, the seat once reserved for Virginia's George Allen -- that of a prominent, southern conservative -- is now filled.
Second, Thompson will deny Romney his desire to turn the GOP contest into a head-to-head battle with Giuliani. That has been the Romney team's goal coming out of the Ames straw poll, but Thompson will force Romney to defend once again his credentials as a true GOP conservative.
Romney's campaign is ready for the challenge and will fire back by questioning Thompson's conservative bona fides. Expect the words "McCain-Feingold," which are anathema to many conservatives, to be hung around his neck by the Romney forces.
For Giuliani, Thompson complicates what had been an emerging southern strategy. Almost counterintuitive in its premise, the strategy was based on evidence that, despite his positions on social issues, Giuliani plays well with southern Republicans because of his strong national security message. Thompson will have more natural affinity in the region that has become the GOP's foundation.
All of this remains summertime speculation. Thompson is not yet a full-blown candidate and there have been enough mixed signals and outright bobbles during his testing-the-waters stage to raise many, many questions about his ultimate viability. It was almost exactly four years ago that Democrats were buzzing about the imminent entry of one Wes Clark. Once in, he fizzled instantly.
Thompson's rivals point to the staff turmoil that has afflicted the organization. Multiple advisers have come and gone in a matter of months, hampering Thompson's ability to build a national campaign over the summer. But there are signs that some order is beginning to take hold.
As one Thompson adviser put it today, the campaign has had to shift from kitchen table to the headquarters, and the arrival of veteran Bill Lacy as campaign manager has helped to settle things.
With Lacy's help, Thompson has recruited a group of advisers with experience in many presidential campaigns. What isn't clear is whether these veterans of campaigns waged in the 1990s are prepared for the rigors of the kind of campaigns that have been waged successfully in the 21st century, in an era of round-the-clock news cycles, metrics, micro-targeting, blogs and other new media.
John Weaver, who was McCain's chief strategist until a parting of the ways earlier in the summer, called Thompson either a serious threat for the nomination or this year's Wes Clark. He predicted the verdict would be clear by the end of September. "Will he seize the moment," Weaver asked in a message today, " or let it, once again, languish?"
The curtain rises next Thursday.
-- Dan Balz
Posted at 1:14 PM ET on Aug 31, 2007
Dan Balz's Take
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