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The Thompson Effect

Ever since former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) floated the idea of a presidential candidacy earlier this year, we've been grappling with where he fits in the field.

We've talked to any number of Republican strategists -- both those working for other candidates and those who are unaffiliated -- in an attempt to learn who Thompson helps, who he hurts, and whether or not he belongs in the top tier. Some believe Thompson is the frontrunner-in-waiting, a movie star with a southern drawl -- the answer to the prayers of conservative voters looking for a candidate to call their own. Others suggest the early days of the Thompson campaign-in-waiting reveal a candidate not all that interested in campaigning, and an operation that has already committed a major faux pas in its handling of the questions over Thompson's work for a pro-abortion rights group.

Fred Thompson
Former Sen. Fred Thompson greets a supporter.

The New York Times took a double-barreled swing at the Thompson question this morning with a piece on how Thompson's rise and John McCain's fall are fundamentally altering the campaign and another story that offers previously unknown details about Thompson's lobbying for a group seeking to ease federal abortion restrictions.

So, where are we when it comes to Thompson?

Let's take the abortion question first. It now seems clear that despite Thompson's previous dodges that he did in fact log hours lobbying for a group that was advocating the loosening of restrictions on abortions. What remains to be seen is whether or not this fact makes Thompson unpalatable to social conservatives. To date, questions about the strictness of Thompson's beliefs on the abortion issue have done little to damage his ascent in both state and national polling. For the moment at least, voters seem content to ignore any negative information about Thompson that might tarnish the golden boy image he has enjoyed in the race.

That will not always be the case. Once Thompson becomes a full-fledged candidate -- sometime after Labor Day it now appears -- he will face considerably more scrutiny on the issue. But, as rival campaigns acknowledge privately, Thompson's voting record on abortion during his time in the Senate is consistent and conservative, meaning it will be hard to pin the pro-choice label on him.

Frankly, the more troubling thing for Thompson in the abortion lobbying story is that it seems to contradict the populist outsider image that the former Senator has been cultivating. Running as an outsider to the ways of Washington worked like a charm for Thompson in 1994 and it's clearly the persona in which he is most comfortable. But, it's much tougher to paint yourself as the straight-shooting outsider when there are detailed records of your lobbying work. Lobbying was never seen as a noble profession by the average voter but in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff scandal it is a down right dirty word.

Looking at the bigger picture, any analysis of state and national polls as well as anecdotal evidence about his fundraising shows that Thompson belongs in a top-tier of candidates along with Romney and Giuliani. What's much more fuzzy is the sort of campaign Thompson plans to run.

Early indicators -- from his penchant for appearing on conservative cable talk shows to his ever-delayed announcement -- suggest that Thompson envisions himself as a national rather than a regional candidate. That is, he and his team seem to believe that the frontloading of the primary process, which is seeking to detail through our "Fast Track Campaign" project, has made it possible for a candidate who carries the name recognition and popularity of Thompson to bypass the traditional grassroots slog of early states like Iowa and New Hampshire to focus on larger states like Florida and California.

Thompson has built next to no organization in Iowa and appears set to skip the Ames Straw poll, a crucial early organizational test set for Aug. 11. The story is the same in New Hampshire where Thompson has yet to announce any endorsements of significance or give any indication that he will play seriously in the state.

South Carolina may be a different story. If Thompson wants to make the case that he is the most-electable conservative candidate in the field, there is no better proving ground than the Palmetto state. Not only would Thompson benefit from a geographical connection (he is the only southerner among the top four candidates) but, unlike in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney has not spent gobs of money in South Carolina yet and could be ripe for the picking in a state where evangelical voters will have an outsized say in the identity of the winner.

Overall who does Thompson hurt or help the most? At first blush we assumed a Thompson candidacy would complicate Romney's play for conservative voters -- and it still might. There is definitely a strain of thinking among GOP strategists that either Romney or Thompson will emerge as the conservative alternative to Giuliani.

But, it's also possible that the star power of Thompson and his apparent desire to run a national campaign with a focus on the Feb. 5 states mirror the strategic plan of Giuliani. To date, Giuliani -- America's Mayor -- has been the biggest star in the Republican firmament. Even voters who vehemently disagree with Giuliani come out to see him because of his national profile and hero status in the Republican party. But, with tough-talking District Attorney Arthur Branch on the campaign trail, Giuliani may well find himself eclipsed in the competition for attention from voters and the media.

The only thing we know for sure about Thompson today is that his candidacy (when it eventually comes) will reshape the race in a fundamental way. How that change happens and what impact it has on the candidates currently running depends on what sort of campaign Thompson puts together, his ability to translate his early popularity into actual votes and how much attacks against his record and his past public statements detract from the luster surrounding him.

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 19, 2007; 3:24 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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