“I’m runnin’ for President of the United States,” drawled the tall man in the comfortable chair. It was Fred Thompson, appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, finally throwing his hat into the ring.
The rest of the Republican candidates, of course, were in New Hampshire for a Fox News debate, where they kicked off by discussing…Fred Thompson. “Who has made the smart moves here,” asked Brit Hume, “you guys, who are here and who have been out on the trail all this time, or Senator Thompson?”
The candidates lined up to take their whacks at that softball. “I was scheduled to be on Jay Leno tonight,” joked Mike Huckabee, “but I gave up my slot for somebody else because I’d rather be in New Hampshire with these fine people.” Ron Paul, who may or may not have been serious, suggested that Thompson would further divide the pro-war vote. “Maybe we’re up past his bedtime,” said John McCain. Mitt Romney sarcastically asked why Thompson isn’t waiting until January or February to get in the race. Rudy Giuliani praised Thompson for “playing my part on Law & Order.” McCain, Romney, and Giuliani all echoed the theme that people in New Hampshire expect to see you up close before they vote for you.
Thompson came up again later, when Giuliani was asked to respond to a comment of Thompson’s about gun control in New York City. All in all, the candidates spent about ten percent of the debate talking about the man who wasn’t there.
Back in Los Angeles, Thompson traded jokes with Leno. Is he getting “a little wrinkly” from testing the waters for so long? “These wrinkles don’t come from the water,” replied Thompson. He argued that his late entry won’t matter because most people aren’t paying attention yet: “They treat politicians kind of like the dentist — they don’t have anything to do with them until they have to, until the election is near.” And he said John McCain is “a good friend and will be after this is over with unless, of course, he beats me.”
After a while, though, the laugh lines stopped. In fact, in the second half of the interview, after a commercial break, Thompson didn’t make the audience giggle once. As Thompson began talking about Iraq and terrorism — and Jay Leno suddenly morphed into Charlie Rose with a nicer set — the interview got somber, and even dull. This could be a problem; when Thompson’s chief rivals for the nomination talk about the war, they can almost never be accused of being dull.
Still, one doesn’t need to hit a Tonight Show appearance out of the park to get mileage from it. And a candidate can do a lot worse than to dominate the discussion at a debate without showing. New Hampshire isn’t as crucial for Thompson as it is for some of the other candidates (South Carolina is his must-win state), so skipping the debate there might not ultimately cost him much. But as Thompson hits the campaign trail, he’d better be ready for a tough fight. The competition won’t be pulling any punches, and if Thompson doesn’t have his guard up he could find himself on the mat rather quickly.
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