Conservative voters waited, thinking he would combine the best of Giuliani, McCain and Romney. They waited because he would be the true heir to Ronald Reagan. He would galvanize the party. They waited through the spring, then the summer. All that time they waited for Fred Thompson. What they got, finally, was Mr. Yesteryear.
On the stump he has an "aw, shucks" persona, but he dwells on the long-ago triumph of 1994 when Newt Gingrich and his troops took control of the House of Representatives.
When he gives a podium speech, chances are he hasn't rehearsed it (example: his presentation to the Veterans of Foreign Wars which should have been a slam/dunk, yet he muffed his lines and obviously was unfamiliar with the text). No Ronald Reagan there. Reagan rehearsed, rehearsed and rehearsed. No wonder he connected so well with his audiences.
The other day in Florida, after a lot of hand-shaking and generalized stump remarks, he settled down in a sofa for a brief television interview. The trouble with settling down for a relaxed interview is that it shows a Fred Thompson who looks very old and very tired.
There is the impression in the air that he waited too long to get in the race. For many conservative/Republican voters an invisible line was crossed this summer, probably in August when reports began to accumulate that the "surge" in Baghdad and the detente with Sunni tribal chiefs in Anbar province were working. Then, two respected Brookings Institution scholars -- both Democrats -- reported back from Iraq in the New York Times that this was "a war we could win." This had a strong effect on the political dynamics of the issue in Washington.
General Petraeus's report shortly after Thompson entered the race spiked for now the Congressional Democrats' efforts to legislate defeat. Voters began to understand that the presidential race would turn on who could best lead the nation in an on-going war declared on us by a band of radical Islamists intent on imposing their totalitarian ideology on the world.
Hillary Clinton, once she has sewn up the Democratic nomination, will almost certainly attempt to make strength on national security the centerpiece of her campaign. True, she unveiled her universal health care plan -- a pastiche of Hillarycare c.1993 and various private sector elements -- but she understands that this and other domestic issues are secondary to the big one.
To counter this the Republicans will need a candidate who presents can-do credentials better than hers and who communicates decisiveness, energy, and passion.
Will that be Thompson, who had his first chance yesterday in Dearborn, Michigan to debate his fellow candidates? He showed good humor, but got off to a slow start on many of his answers. It is said he spent nine hours in rehearsal. Perhaps he was over-rehearsed, but in a campaign moving at the speed of this one, there is no room for a slow start. To his credit, he understands that the war in Iraq is, as he put it, "a front in a much larger war." Against Giuliani's optimism and zest for battle, and Romney's full-throttle prescriptions for national success, Fred Thompson came across as likable, but still Mr. Yesteryear; the man who left no footprints when he departed the Senate and was a star in a television series now fading from memory.
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