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Where voters live, Thompson matters
By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published September 23, 2007
We have made the case through the year for how each major 2008 presidential contender can win. These columns see politics.tampabay.com for past installments aren't predictions or endorsements, mind you, just food for thought. This week, Republican Fred Thompson.
There have been so many dismissive or blistering articles about Fred Thompson in recent months, I half expected last weekend to see Larry, Curly or Moe lead a bumbling three-day bus tour through Florida.
George Will likens the former Tennessee senator to overhyped New Coke; Robert Novak suggests the late-announcing candidate may have crashed and burned before takeoff; Dick Morris declares him clearly over his head on the campaign trail.
These guys need get out of the Beltway for a few days and see what's happening on the ground in places like Florida. They're underestimating hunger among Republicans for an alternative to the current field.
"I've been fighting to find a candidate I can support," said David Nelson, a retiree from Fort Myers Beach, echoing Republican after Republican who came out to see Thompson in Cape Coral recently. "Fred is so straightforward and comes off so logical, he's the kind of candidate people have been screaming for."
Yes, the 65-year-old lawyer/lobbyist/actor was vague or uninformed about some key issues like Terri Schiavo, offshore drilling and a national catastrophic fund while campaigning in Florida. Yes, Thompson had a languid pace of campaigning, with lots of hours driving on a cushy campaign bus between occasional events. No, he's not a riveting orator.
But even after Thompson's weakest performances - in Cape Coral he breathed heavily into the microphone, lost his train of thought, and at one point under the sweltering sun, his hand started shaking ominously - people gushed with passion and constantly compared him to Ronald Reagan.
"Fred Thompson sounds like he's really down to earth, in contrast to what we're seeing from some of the other candidates," said Joe DeRose, a retired pharmaceutical company manger in The Villages. "He comes off as very believable, and I think it's because his values are the values of the American people."
Certainly, Thompson shares some of Reagan's Teflon. The fallout from publicity about the shaky start of his campaign organization, about him once lobbying for an abortion rights group, about him not belonging to a church, about Nixon viewing the young Senate Watergate Committee lawyer as a "dumb as hell" ally? So far, zip.
Most national polls show him in a close second place to Rudy Giuliani among Republicans. A Mason-Dixon poll of likely GOP voters in Florida released last week found Giuliani and Thompson in a dead heat, with 24 percent and 23 percent support respectively, followed by 13 percent for Mitt Romney.
Despite his many years as a Washington lobbyist, Thompson is pitching himself as a folksy, outsider with a track record for stepping up for public service when his country needs him: as the 30-year-old minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee; as the lawyer in a Tennessee whistle-blower case that wound up leading to the imprisonment of a governor and Thompson playing himself in the movie; as part of the Republican Revolution in 1994.
If he can bump off Romney as the viable conservative alternative to Giuliani - thrice married, estranged from his own children, supports gay rights, abortion rights and gun control - the nomination may be Thompson's for the taking. It won't be easy, but there is a path for Thompson and Florida is a key part.
Late-starting, Thompson probably won't win the crucial early contests of Iowa and New Hampshire. But he must finish strong enough to keep Romney from riding a tidal wave of momentum. It would help if Giuliani or John McCain could keep Romney from winning New Hampshire, on the heels of winning Iowa.
"This is an atypical presidential election cycle. Winning Iowa and New Hampshire is not insignificant, but it is not as significant as in elections past," said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, a Thompson supporter.
If Thompson can stay alive through Iowa and New Hampshire in early January, the only Southerner in the race is positioned to win South Carolina's primary on Jan. 15, then Florida on Jan. 29 and compete well among some two dozen states voting on Feb. 5.
"What we have to do as a campaign is figure out how to build a strategic bridge from the very early states to South Carolina, Florida and Feb. 5 states," said Thompson's national campaign manager Bill Lacy, who well remembers how in 1994 the pundits foolishly wrote off Thompson's prospects for winning the nomination for Al Gore's Senate seat.
Feb. 5 is shaping up as a virtual national primary day, and many observers note the big Giuliani-friendly states voting that day, such as new York, Connecticut and New Jersey (183 delegates combined). Overlooked are how many delegates will come from Thompson-friendly states like Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama (175 delegates combined).
If he wins the nomination, and he can, Hillary Clinton will probably find out what Hollywood already knows: The D.A. on Law & Order and admiral in Hunt for Red October can sell America reassuring power and competence as well as anybody.
The next couple months will be crucial for Thompson to capitalize on the lack of enthusiasm for the other Republicans. But forget all the skeptical pundits for awhile. Conventional wisdom doesn't necessarily apply in the first Republican primary in decades without a clear front-runner.