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Too Soon to Write Off Thompson

Despite the hype, Fred Thompson's campaign will not rise and fall based on his performance tonight. (Getty).

DEARBORN, Mich. -- Could Fred Thompson's candidacy end by sunset? You might think that from all the hype and commentary surrounding today's Republican debate. Rarely has there been so much focus on one individual as there is today on the hulking actor who was the last to enter the GOP race.

Thompson has gone from savior to chump in a few short months -- or so it seems from the shifting storyline surrounding his candidacy. When he first raised his head last spring, he was anointed as the next Reagan, a ruggedly handsome, made-for-the-cameras conservative who would restore the appeal of a Republican Party reeling from its midterm losses and the damage inflicted during George W. Bush's presidency.

Today he's become the hapless candidate who can't light a fire with an audience with a blowtorch. He stumbles, he can't remember facts, he speaks in platitudes, he leaves audiences underwhelmed. From being the guy who some people thought could throw the best punch at the Democrats, he has become a walking punch line of his own. Pity.

I'm reminded of what Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour used to tell his staff when he was chairman of the Republican National Committee: things are never as good or as bad as they seem at the time. That's a useful reminder heading into today's CNBC debate -- and probably heading out of it. The truth is, for all of Thompson's problems -- and no one should underestimate them -- this is a Republican field in which each of the candidates is challenged in some way.

Months ago, a savvy veteran of Republican presidential campaigns was surveying the field of candidates (this was before Thompson seemed likely to enter). His conclusion was interesting. He said that if you looked at John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani only through the prism of their strengths and weaknesses, you would conclude that none could win the nomination. Yet, he said, one of them would win it.

Add Thompson into that mix and the same conclusion holds today. Seemingly, Romney can't win because of his flip flops and perhaps because of resistance to his Mormon religion in the South. Giuliani can't win because, for all the credit he gets for his performance on and after 9/11, he's still just too out of step on social issues for the rank-and-file to accept. McCain can't win because he's at odds with the base on immigration, saddled with Iraq and perhaps too old. Thompson can't win because he's a lackluster candidate without much to say.

Bill Lacy, who is Thompson's campaign manager, said this morning that today's debate will be one of just many forums and events over the next few months -- not a make-or-break moment for his candidate.

Lacy, who also managed Thompson's 1994 Senate race, said two things about his candidate. First, that he never expected Thompson to suddenly galvanize voters once he became a candidate. Second, that Republican voters see something in Thompson that the media is missing.

"We went through this in '94 to a certain degree when early on the news media basically wrote Fred off," he said. "A large part of it has to do with the image that people thought he would project is really not Fred."

What he meant was that the Fred Thompson of "The Hunt for Red October" is not the Fred Thompson running for president, but that the Thompson on the campaign trail is connecting better than critics suggest. He bases that in part on Thompson's showing in the new Iowa Poll, which shows him in second place behind Romney.

"We fundamentally understand here that we're still going through some growing pains as a campaign," he said. "We have an outstanding candidate. I think he's going to wear very well with conservative Republicans over time."

Lacy said the challenge for Thompson is not to rise to the top of the pack in the next 30 days, but to be seen as a credible challenger for the nomination at the time the Republican campaign reaches South Carolina in January. That means surviving contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan in strong enough shape to be taken seriously by South Carolinians.

"I would never accept the notion that we have to win, we have to have a strong enough performance so that we meet that threshold voters are looking for," he said. "South Carolina Republicans have to believe that we can still win."

Some strategists would say that may not be realistic -- that three losses before South Carolina would cripple Thompson's or anyone else's candidacy. But given the state of the GOP race, every candidate right now other than Romney anticipates losing early and still winning the nomination.

So look past today's debate in Dearborn. There will be much else coming to keep the Republican race interesting.

--Dan Balz

By Post Editor  |  October 9, 2007; 1:15 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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