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Fred's In, Who's Hurt?

The news that former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) is going to run for president isn't terribly surprising. He's been moving in that direction for the last several months and in the past few weeks has hired both a campaign manager and a general counsel.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson
Fred Thompson speaks at the Prescott Bush Awards Dinner last week in Stamford, Conn. The 600 guests at the dinner paid between $250 to $1,000 for a chance to meet the Tennessee Republican. (AP)

But now that Thompson appears to be an official candidate, it's worth looking at how he affects the rest of the field. Here's our take on how Thompson impacts each of his major potential rivals; obviously until he's in the race for a few months it will be impossible to measure the full impact, but the thoughts below represent our best guess.

Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor seems the most hurt by Thompson's candidacy. Romney has been making a concerted play for the conservative vote in the nomination fight and has met with considerable success to this point. But, Thompson is positioning himself as the electable conservative alternative and has a more consistent record on issues important to this crucial bloc of voters than does Romney. In the past three competitive Iowa cauces (1988, 1992 and 2000) the candidate seen as the most socially conservative has won roughly one-quarter of the total vote. If Romney has to share even a portion of that vote with Thompson, it impairs the former governor's formula for winning in Iowa. It's important, however, not to get too far ahead of yourself when assessing the damage to Romney. Romney begins with a $30 million (or so) headstart over Thompson and a huge organizational edge over Thompson in the early primary states. Romney's best bet is to try and kill the Thompson campaign in the crib -- never allowing the actor-turned-politician the chance to present himself as a viable conservative.

John McCain: A Thompson candidacy is a mix of good and bad news for the Arizona Senator. Let's take the good news first. (The Fix is nothing if not an optimist.) Most strategists for McCain's rivals believe that he has a ceiling of support in each of the early states that hovers between 20 percent and 30 percent. Those supporters will never leave McCain but, his opponents argue, he will struggle to add any serious new support since he is almost entirely known by the Republican electorate and they haven't sided with him yet. With Thompson in the race, the field becomes even more fractured -- going from three serious candidates to four. Say what you will about Thompson, but even before he has set foot in places like Iowa and New Hampshire he is already in the mix along with McCain, Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. If Thompson can draw away 10 percent or more of the vote in early states that might otherwise default to Giuliani or Romney, it enhances McCain's chances of winning the nomination. The bad news for McCain from Thompson's entry is that it may well complicate the Arizona Senator's fundraising. Thompson will enjoy "hot new thing" status for at least a month, and that month also happens to be the final one of the second fundraising quarter. McCain needs to win the cash dash in the second quarter to show the first three months of the year were a fluke and that he belongs in the top tier.

Rudy Giuliani: If you accept the premise that the nomination fight will ultimately come down to Giuliani versus some conservative alternative, then Thompson's entry into the contest is quite good news for Hizzoner. The longer (and nastier) the fight among Romney, Thompson and McCain to be the conservative choice, the better Giuliani looks. Thompson's candidacy has the potential to muddy the water in Iowa and South Carolina with no clear winners emerging. An extended primary season is all to the good for Giuliani who is strongest in the group of states voting next Feb. 5. The only potential downside of Thompson's candidacy from the Giuliani perspective is that they are both tough-talking, law and order men -- overlapping images that could make it harder for Giuliani to distinguish himself from his rivals.

Mike Huckabee: Uh-oh. Just when Huckabee seemed to be building momentum from his strong showings in the first two debates, Thompson comes along. Huckabee has cast himself as a true conservative in a field of pretenders. But, Thompson's record in the Senate was generally conservative and he is far better known nationally than Huckabee and won't likely struggle to raise money the way the former Arkansas Governor has. And, while Huckabee has a certain charisma, it's tough to imagine him competing with the star power of Thompson.

Neutral observers generally agree that Thompson has the potential to be a major player in the Republican race. But potential doesn't always equal reality. Candidates for president have to want the office more badly than they want anything else in their lives; the time and energy that it takes to run a national bid demands that sort of all-encompassing commitment. Thompson has always faced questions about how badly he wants anything in political life; he is like a talented high school basketball player whose "upside" is forever debated. The next few months will be telling about whether Thompson will realize his vast political potential.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 30, 2007; 11:24 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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Next: The 2008 Angle on the Zoellick Nomination

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