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The Case Against Fred Thompson

Last week The Fix made the case for why former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) should run for president in 2008. Today, the opposing argument.

Fred Thompson
Is Fred Thompson bouncing back into politics? (Getty Images)

Two factors make a bid by Thompson an ill-advised proposition -- the incredibly early start of the 2008 campaign and the former senator's well-known distaste for the nuts and bolts of campaigning.

Because John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have essentially been running for much of the past year, they have built national fundraising networks and organizations in key early states.

Thompson has none of that, which wouldn't be a problem if he had shown a passion in past campaigns for building that sort of organization. But he hasn't.

In 1994 Thompson won the special election to serve out Vice President Al Gore's Senate term largely on his star power and his raw ability as a campaigner. Larger than life, Thompson wowed voters on the stump with his down-home populist message -- typified by the red pickup truck in which he toured the state. It didn't hurt that Thompson picked the best Republican year in modern American politics to run for his first elected office.

Two years later, Thompson was easily reelected when he sought a full term, winning more votes than any previous statewide candidate in Tennessee history. And he would have easily won reelection again in 2002 had he decided to run.

Given that he has been almost entirely out of politics for the last five years, and the fact that it's been 13 years since he faced a competitive election, it's something of an understatement to guess that Thompson's political machinery is a bit rusty.

That rust means that Thompson would start from something close to scratch from an organizational and financial standpoint if he decided to enter the race. Such a predicament would require absolute dedication on Thompson's part to raising the tens of millions he would need to be competitive with McCain, Romney and Giuliani. The most Thompson has ever raised for a campaign before is $3.8 million, the sum he collected in his 1994 special election win over Jim Cooper (D). Insiders doubt whether he has the commitment required to stay competitive with the top tier.

Another Thompson character trait that seems to recommend against a presidential candidacy is his tendency to play "Hamlet." After publicly wavering for the better part of a year, Thompson decided not to run for reelection in 2002 just 27 days before Tennessee's filing deadline. Thompson considered a run for president in 2000 before deferring to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and he was mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2002.

We're not saying Thompson can't change his stripes -- especially given that his wife is apparently urging him to run. But past performance is usually a pretty good indicator of future results.

The other major question surrounding Thompson is how well he would wear with social conservatives. Without an obvious standardbearer in the field, social conservatives might be drawn to Thompson's conservative voting record in the Senate.

But upon deeper examination, how well will Thompson's support among social conservatives hold up? Thompson -- along with McCain -- was one of the main backers of campaign finance reform legislation that is roundly despised by social conservatives due to the perceived limitations it puts on the kind of grassroots organizing essential to groups on the ideological right (or left).

And when he ran for the Senate in 1994, Thompson was routinely described as a supporter of abortion rights. A 1994 story in the Memphis Commercial Appeal described Thompson and his Democratic opponent as "basically pro-choice on abortion," and an Associated Press piece from that same year called Thompson a "pro-choice defender in a party with an anti-abortion tilt."

But in an interview with Fox News's Chris Wallace, Thompson described himself as "pro-life" and called Roe v. Wade "bad law and bad medical science." At some point, Thompson will be forced to explain the seeming contradiction/evolution in his position. (American Spectator is already on the case.)

Thompson's personal life could also raise questions about his social conservative bona fides. He has been married twice, a fact that could well be neutralized by the fact that Giuliani is on his third marriage while McCain has also been married twice. Among the GOP frontrunners, only Romney has been married just once.

It's possible -- likely, even -- that Thompson's best day in the race would be the one on which he announces his candidacy. Thompson's reputation as a less-than-enthusiastic campaigner would severely hamstring his chances of catching up to the frontrunners. And once Thompson's star power wore off, his past political pronouncements could complicate his appeal to social conservatives. Even if he was able to clear each of these hurdles, his nomination would be nowhere near a sure-thing. Staying in private life is a lot more lucrative and a lot less work.

These two posts are meant to spark conversation, so feel free to agree, disagree, condemn or compliment in the comments section below.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 27, 2007; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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