Fred Thompson looking for popularity burst in Iowa
By LIZ SIDOTI
Associated Press Writer
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Republican Fred Thompson, Hollywood celebrity and former Tennessee senator, went from hot to not in short order.
Now, he’s trying to create another popularity burst in the presidential race, this one perfectly timed.
His voice and expression serious, Thompson told Iowa voters this past week: “I would ask people to think of one thing — when our worst enemy’s thinking about what he can do to the United States of America, who do you want sitting on our side of the table representing you? That’s probably the guy you ought to elect president.”
It was Thompson the lawyer presenting his closing argument for the Iowa caucuses, now less than three weeks away.
Rhetoric aside, the obstacles to his goal — at least a third-place finish to propel him forward — are daunting.
Financially, Thompson essentially is living hand-to-mouth. He hardly has enough money for TV ads and mailings.
He’s lagging his rivals badly in polls, and his light campaign schedule has been undercutting his argument that he’s a strong leader.
He hopes to change all that with a caucus homestretch strategy that begins Monday. That’s when he opens a five-event-a-day bus tour planned through the Jan. 3 caucuses, save for a Christmas break. It’s a last-ditch push and is geared toward local TV coverage to maximize free exposure. Aides say he will not only talk about his vision but also will draw distinctions with his rivals, albeit carefully. His low-key personality and Southern drawl could soften the sting that could turn off Iowans who are prone to dislike negativity.
The bus tour theme: “The Clear Conservative Choice. Hands Down!”
That’s a play on last week’s debate just outside Des Moines when Thompson — in a moment that showed the real man — refused to cooperate when the moderator asked the candidates to raise their hands if they thought global warming was a serious threat caused by human behavior.
“I’m not doing hand shows today,” Thompson said, dispensing with what he’s wont to argue is political gimmickry that just gums up what should be a substantive process of picking a president. “You want to give me a minute to answer that?”
“No, I don’t,” said moderator Carolyn Washburn.
“Well, then I’m not going to answer it,” Thompson said, to the audience’s delight.
At another point, he chided rival Mitt Romney, who’s worth $190 million to $250 million, during a tax question, saying: “My goal is to get into Mitt Romney’s situation, where I don’t have to worry about taxes anymore.” When Romney countered the comment, Thompson shot back: “Well, you know, you’re getting to be a pretty good actor.”
Thompson’s straightforward style shone through when he said: “I’m going to take a chance on telling the truth to the American people. Our entitlement programs, by 2040 or so, we’re going to eat up our entire budget.” Then he said he would fix the problems.
Looking like he’s right out of central casting, the towering Thompson with his deep baritone and conservative Senate voting record charmed restive Republicans in the spring with talk of a presidential bid. But his star faded as he waited until fall to enter the race and then, once in, saw his poll numbers drop.
“The expectations were so high in Iowa that he was going to be the savior of the social conservatives. Then he came here and fell flat,” said Dianne Bystrom, an Iowa State University political science professor.
Nevertheless, Iowa Republicans don’t dispute that Thompson still has a chance to rise.
“It might be too little too late, but with it being so fluid, you never know. Everything breaks late here,” said Chuck Laudner, the Iowa GOP’s executive director. “Getting to first place is going to be near impossible, but he certainly could exceed expectations, and finishing third would be that.”
Thompson hopes to do well enough to be able to raise money to continue in states beyond Iowa. Unclear, at this point, is whether he would try to compete in next-up New Hampshire, which he’s all but ignored the past three months, or skip that and Michigan to head to South Carolina, where his Southern populist appeal could resonate best.
With polls showing Thompson behind just about everywhere, aides acknowledge the uphill nature of his bid but say they see an opening in Iowa. They argue the volatile race, the large number of Republicans still willing to change their minds and the skirmishing between front-running rivals Romney and Mike Huckabee could give Thompson a chance to re-emerge as a favorite among those on the party’s right flank.
They argue that Thompson would be the main beneficiary of what they expect will be Huckabee’s fall as more voters get to know the former Arkansas governor.
They say those voters won’t go to Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, because they’ve had more than a year to do so and haven’t.
Thompson has run a moderate-to-small level of TV ads in the state and doesn’t have enough money to ensure he’ll be on the air at full-bore, or even every day, in the final stretch. In recent weeks, Thompson sent Iowans a few mailers criticizing Huckabee, but it’s not certain he can afford any more.
“Maybe (Thompson’s plan) will work, but it seems to be the timing may be problematic,” Mike Mahaffey, a former Iowa GOP chairman, said. He speculated that the holiday season could interrupt any momentum Thompson could get. “I’ll tell you what’s going peak in the next two weeks in Iowa — Christmas!”
Published in The Messenger 12.17.07