At last night’s debate in New Hampshire, all three of the top-tier candidates were in good form. John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney were all crisp, assertive, and even presidential. And none of it mattered, as they were all overshadowed by an elephant in the corner.
Fred Thompson hasn’t entered the race yet, but he has confirmed that he almost certainly will. It took less than a minute before he was mentioned last night, as the candidates were asked to introduce themselves. “My name is Thompson — Tommy Thompson. The candidate, not the actor,” said the former Wisconsin governor and secretary of Heath and Human Services. It was a bad joke, and like most of what comes out of Tommy Thompson’s mouth it made one wonder if he’s actually delusional enough to think he can be president, but it’s understandable that the topic of “the actor” would be on Gov. Thompson’s mind; political observers can hardly talk about anything else. And it wasn’t the last time Fred Thompson would come up.
Jim Gilmore, accusing the three front-runners of insufficient conservatism, has dubbed them “Rudy McRomney.” He was asked if he’d expand that to “Rudy McRomneyson” when Thompson jumps in. (From here on, any reference to “Thompson” in this column, absent a first name, refers to Fred.) Gilmore punted, claiming that we don’t know enough about Thompson’s views. (In fact, we know quite a lot about Thompson’s views, as he cast numerous votes in the Senate and has lately been doing regular radio commentaries.) The moderators then threw the question of whether Thompson would be a good addition to the race to Tommy Thompson, who made another lame joke about their shared surname before saying yes, he would be.
If a candidate becomes the subject of a debate without showing up, he wins. The day Thompson enters the race he will instantly catapult into the top-tier. Without having even entered, he’s already in the top four — and sometimes in the top three — in almost every poll, both nationally and in early primary states.
This all carries a downside for Thompson, of course. As the specter of his candidacy dominates the race, expectations have become awfully high. These debates are sharpening the candidates’ skills, and you can bet that Giuliani, McCain, and Romney will be prepared for Thompson’s entry. Thompson won’t be able to coast along on Internet buzz for very long. But after last night, there can be no doubt that Thompson will enter the race with the wind at his back.