Memo to readers: With his superb performance in Wednesday's debate in Iowa, Fred Thompson has made a monkey out of me. By early afternoon on Tuesday, the column that appears below, one which posits that Thompson's presidential campaign might still find a way to win, was ready in exactly the form it appears here. But I thought the column would still remain exactly on target throughout the week, so (for various reasons) I aimed for a Friday release. At the time, I thought that until Thompson began his Iowa bus tour on Monday the 17th, my contention that he "ain't dead" yet would seem noteworthy for its boldness.
Then Thompson ruined it all by so clearly running away with the laurels in Wednesday's debate -- and in particularly Reaganesque fashion. Just as Reagan did at the famous Nashua, N.H. debate in 1980, Thompson used the unfairness of the debate moderator as a foil in a way that justly earned the candidate plaudits as a no-nonsense kind of guy. Now everybody is taking a second look at Thompson's chances. Deservedly so.
But of course a debate performance like that should not have been a surprise. As my column reports, pollster Frank Luntz said even before Wednesday's debates that Thompson was hitting his stride and connecting with audiences at earlier debates.
Anyway, without further ado (but with more commentary afterwards), here is my column as originally written -- in what I thought would seemed a fairly bold analysis, but which now seems unremarkable -- as an object lesson for those of us who think we understand political timing. Just as pundits, myself included, were having a high old time criticizing Sen. Thompson for the timing of his efforts in this campaign, he somehow succeeded in stealing a march on us. Maybe Good Ol' Fred knows what he is doing after all.
The original column:
Don't count out Fred Thompson for president just yet.
Two years ago, then-U.S. Sen. George Allen of Virginia was generally seen as the most likely Republican to emerge as the conservative consensus candidate for president in 2008. Today, he is intimately involved -- especially in making pitches to major donors -- with the candidacy of his former colleague Fred Thompson of Tennessee.
Detractors might say Allen's involvement is fitting, considering that Allen badly crashed in his own Senate re-election campaign, just as Thompson has been falling in the polls since his belated official announcement in September. But there's another way to look at it. Just as Allen was once thought to be the only candidate solid on all three legs of the conservative stool -- social, economic, and defense/foreign policy -- Thompson is now hoping that each of the other major candidates' apostasies in at least one of those areas will drag them down, one by one, until Thompson is the only contender left standing.
All along, Thompson's campaign has banked its hopes on what Allen calls "the integrity, the genuineness, the authenticity" of Thompson as the "consistent, commonsense conservative."
Pollster Frank Luntz says it still may work.
"He does well [in focus groups]," Luntz told me on Dec. 7. "He has an especially good opportunity still to do well in southern and border states where his laid-back style is not only appreciated but embraced. His best message is about immigration and anti-Washington spending. The way he communicates those things is very credible; people believe him."
Not that Luntz is predicting any particular victor. "Too many variables," he said. "States come [to the polls] too quickly. I have no pattern; I have seen too many candidates rise and fall."
But that's exactly Thompson's point. "You remember President Howard Dean, don't you?" he frequently asks, rhetorically, about the December campaign favorite four years ago who quickly flamed out.
Thompson could also remind people of how another conservative actor with a maddeningly languid early campaign pace, Ronald Reagan in 1979-80, allowed the elder George Bush to grab the "Big Mo"mentum from him -- before just a few weeks of earnest, person-to-person campaigning by Reagan stopped Bush cold.
The Thompson-Reagan comparison has been made far too often, but in one respect the likeness is valid: Just as Thompson appears to do today, Reagan had a notable tendency to coast along until seriously challenged. Reagan, though, could turn on his jets just in time for maximum impact. Can Thompson do likewise? Thompson plans a rigorous 15-day bus tour through Iowa before the caucuses there, and seems confident in his retail campaigning abilities.
But Thompson refuses to be hurried. He also refuses to change his stripes. In an exclusive interview Dec. 6, when asked whether he needs to make a new, big splash in order to recapture voters' imaginations, he insisted that "you should not expect dramatically different messages from me or dramatically different behavior from me.... I will not change what my message has been since 1994."
On substance, that message has just about everything to make the old Reagan coalition swoon. Tax cuts and simplification? Check. Record of fighting wasteful spending? Check. More money for the military? Check. Returning power to the states? Consistent votes against abortion? Support for solidly conservative judges? Almost-visceral support for Israel? Support for private gun rights? Check, check, check, check, and check.
In recent weeks, Thompson has added depth to those conservative bona fides. His series of detailed papers on defense, taxes, and Social Security have earned widespread praise from conservative outlets, including the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. On the politically risky issue of Social Security, Luntz says his focus groups show that Thompson uses effective language: "The way that he looks at it is that we have to protect our children from ourselves. It is an intergenerational approach and it is very popular among Republicans."
But what really animates Thompson is the battle against terrorism. On this topic, his obvious passion equals that of his friend John McCain. Indeed, it is difficult for an interviewer to get him off the subject.
"I understand the nature of the threat we are facing internationally in large part because of my service on the intelligence committee and my travel around the world meeting with foreign leaders," Thompson said. "Also, my service as chairman of the government affairs committee dealing with issues of nuclear proliferation, and finally on the international security advisory board for the State Department. Condoleezza Rice asked me to chair that board...."
Thompson was just getting started.
But he can't put that passion for a strong military posture into action if he doesn't first catch political fire again. Yet nothing can budge him from his belief, no matter what the polls say, that he is on the right course as the only candidate acceptable simultaneously to all facets of the old Reagan coalition while exhibiting none of the sharp edges that scare voters in the middle. It's the same sort of campaign George Allen seemed poised to run, the sort of campaign many thought would make Allen a solid winner until he forgot to focus first on being re-elected in Virginia.
"I think Republicans are going to want someone who can unify the Republicans and who can appeal to independent votes in November," Thompson said, leaving no doubt that he thinks only he can fill that bill. Meanwhile, Fred Thompson just keeps ambling along.
So there you have it. Even in noting Thompson's many strengths, I sort of hedged my bets. But here's the deal: As Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee savage each other about immigration, abortion, religion and everything else under the sun, Thompson just keeps plugging away while being poised to pick up the pieces. And as Huckabee finally receives the long-overdue scrutiny for his bad record on clemencies (see my colleague Philip Klein's excellent piece) and ethics (as reported most recently by NBC's Lisa Myers), the Arkansas governor's lead in Iowa is likely to fade. Now, just who is it, polls already were showing even before Wednesday's debate, who was the second choice of the largest percentage of Huckabee's tentative supporters? None other than Fred Thompson.
Amazing, isn't it, how much ground the solidly conservative Thompson can make up, just by ambling along?