Dan Balz's Take
At Long Last, Thompson's Moment to Shine
By Dan Balz
ST. PAUL -- Let's put aside questions about Sarah Palin for a few hours and talk about Fred Thompson. After Tuesday's program at the Republican convention, it's clear just how much John McCain owes the former Tennessee senator and actor.
Had the Fred Thompson who delivered that stemwinder of a speech on Tuesday night shown up during the contest for the Republican nomination, McCain might be watching this week's convention from the sidelines. Where was that Fred when it mattered?
It was a year ago this week that I ran into McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis in the Manchester, N.H., airport. He had just arrived for a Republican debate at the University of New Hampshire, scheduled for later that night. Before we went our separate ways, we grabbed a cup of coffee at the airport and spent some time talking about the campaign.
At that point, Thompson was the hot ticket in the Republican race. While the rest of the Republican field was preparing for the evening's encounter, Thompson was in Los Angeles getting ready to announce his long-anticipated presidential candidacy on Jay Leno's show. People thought that was awfully clever.
McCain at the time was still considered a dead man walking by the political cognoscenti. This was only about two months after McCain's campaign had imploded, his campaign manager and his chief strategist had quit, his communications team had walked away and his closest confidant was struggling with his own role or commitment.
The contrast was stunning. Thompson, even with obvious start-up problems, was still seen as a potentially big figure -- a new Reagan! -- about to shake up the Republican race. McCain was flying coach on Southwest Airlines, carrying his own bag and trying to drum up any crowd. Few reporters were paying attention to a candidate whose accessibility had always drawn a hefty press contingent.
I expected Davis to be downbeat about the state of things. Instead I found him unexpectedly hopeful. McCain was about to launch his "No Surrender" tour and use September to double down on his support for the surge strategy in Iraq. He knew that Army Gen. David Petraeus was soon to testify on Capitol Hill, that the report likely would be more upbeat that had appeared a few months earlier and was looking to capitalize on those hearings to barnstorm through several states to revive his candidacy.
But McCain needed plenty of help -- and first of all from Thompson. The actor had enjoyed a wonderful summer of glowing media attention full of speculation about his potential to reshape a Republican race in which no candidate had emerged to take command. McCain was struggling. Rudy Giuliani had good poll numbers but was at odds with the base. Mitt Romney had won the Iowa straw poll but was suspect to many conservatives. Mike Huckabee was only beginning to emerge in Iowa.
The campaign was Fred Thompson's to take by the throat and turn his way. But the Thompson who showed up on the stump was nothing like the Hollywood images that had accompanied the build up about his candidacy.
Thompson was a woefully bad candidate. He had told my colleague David Broder that he planned to run a campaign with a message of taking on hard challenges in Washington and putting country over party to pull together bipartisan coalitions to make changes. His advisers talked about running a very internet-savvy campaign and made it sound as if they had found a way to short-circuit the old-fashioned hard work of running for president.
They were so mistaken. Once on the campaign trail, all the pre-game hype left Thompson. He had no energy. He had no particular message. He had no drive. He didn't stand out in debates. He didn't campaign hard. He disappointed his staff and supporters.
Friends of Thompson, some of them already working in other campaigns, weren't surprised. For all their affection toward him, they knew the real Fred Thompson, knew that Thompson wasn't built for the rigors of a real presidential campaign. He sputtered and sputtered and sputtered.
Had he not, he might have filled a vacuum that eventually McCain seized. He could have had credibility as a conservative, though perhaps not as conservative as some people wanted. Certainly he had more credibility than Romney.
He had the celebrity appeal of a nationally known television actor to compete with Giuliani's celebrity status, without the social issue positions that cost the former New York mayor so much with conservatives. He could have headed off Huckabee in Iowa had he figured out a real strategy -- and done the work to implement it.
Instead, Thompson flamed out, running a lethargic campaign. He became, in the end, one more potential hurdle for McCain that never materialized.
So imagine the reaction of Republicans here on Tuesday night when Thompson got up on stage and let loose. He was animated, he was funny, he was sharp-tongued. He knew how to hit Barack Obama and he knew how to hit the media over Palin. He knew, because he was one of McCain's closest friends when they were in the Senate together, how to promote the Arizona senator both to the base and to potential swing voters.
For one night, he was everything people thought they were getting a year ago this week. McCain can only be grateful he waited so long.
Posted at 3:09 PM ET on Sep 3, 2008
Dan Balz's Take
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