Dateline: 13 June 2007
For about a year, bloggers and the commentariat have been talking about the ‘big three’ in the Republican primary campaign: Giuliani, McCain and Romney. By now people are getting bored with this field, and the weaknesses of the three have been explored endlessly. Understandably, some have been calling for a new candidate to enter the field, and it looks as though those calls have been answered.
The only question that remains is this: is Fred Thompson just a temporary blip in the polls, as a response to big-three-fatigue, or will he stay the course as a leading contender.
First, the obvious weakness: Thompson’s only political office was as a US senator, and senators lose. They don’t necessarily lose the primaries, but they lose in the general. Only three serving members of Congress (House and Senate combined) have ever been elected President. They served less than six years between them.
But, hang on, that is serving members of Congress. Fred Thompson is not a serving member of Congress, he is an actor, currently serving in Law and Order. There are several other presidents whose most senior political office prior to being elected was in Congress – Abraham Lincoln for one.
The battle between senators and governors is, as often as not, a battle between the insider and the outsider. In such a battle the outsider usually wins. Witness the fact that the last senator to be elected president was elected over the serving vice president.
Thompson is, arguably, the outsider. He has spent most of his career outside politics altogether. He was elected to the Senate in 1994, to serve the tail end of Al Gore’s Senate term, and re-elected for a full term in 1996. That was the last time he fought an election.
Against professional pols like McCain and Giuliani he is the outsider. Even against Mitt Romney – businessman turned governor of Massachusetts – Thompson could make a case that he is the dignified everyman, against the smooth political professional. And the real crunch for a senator comes in the general election, and here he would be facing Clinton, Obama, or Edwards who are all senators too. If the race is senator against governor, the governor will win. But senator against senator? One of them has to win. (Intriguingly, this has never happened before. The nearest was 1960: Kennedy was a senator and Nixon had been one before becoming vice president).
Thompson’s strengths are considerable. He has tremendous gravitas. He is tall and has a deep booming voice. And, in his case it doesn’t come off as silky smooth as it can with Mitt Romney, and certainly used to with Bill Clinton. His southern charm is more like Reagan’s western cowboy than Clinton’s used car salesman. When he changes his mind on issues – as he has on abortion and campaign finance – it seems sincere. There are many people who find Mitt Romney far less convincing on this.
Thompson is staking out ground as the only true conservative against a New York liberal, a Senate maverick, and a Massachusetts opportunist. He is a long way behind the others in the fundraising stakes, but fundraising does not equate to success. It is just one way, among many, of measuring success.
He needs $50 million and a nationwide campaign. He’s got six months. The clock is ticking.
Quentin Langley is editor of http://www.quentinlangley.net an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.