Is Fred Thompson Coming to the GOP’s Rescue?

by Stuart Rothenberg May 3, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

I’ll admit that I have had a hard time warming to the idea that former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), whom I first saw as minority counsel during the Senate Watergate hearings and whose TV and movie credits include “Die Hard 2,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “Law & Order,” would run for president. And it seemed, at least initially, even more difficult to imagine him as the Republican nominee next year.

But try as I might to dismiss the idea of a Thompson candidacy, I no longer can do so. It isn’t that the former Senator from Tennessee is such a good fit for the role of presidential candidate. It’s simply that none of the other cast members is a perfect fit either.

As every political analyst on the planet has observed for months, all of the top-tier GOP hopefuls face serious obstacles on the road to Minneapolis, and there clearly is a vacancy in the race for a mainstream conservative who doesn’t have a reputation as a troublemaker within the party.

Thompson surely has assets both in the race for the Republican nomination and in a general election, the single most important being that he both looks and sounds like the president of the United States of America. Don’t dismiss the “he sure looks like a president” factor. It’s important.

But I’m not certain whether the former Tennessee official truly fills the vacancy in his party’s presidential field that was created when conservative Sen. George Allen’s (R-Va.) political career imploded. For now, at least, many conservatives seem to think that Thompson is acceptable, though I’m not sure how deeply they have looked into his record.

Anyway, Thompson didn’t offend conservatives when he was a Senator and he doesn’t have a pro-choice, pro-gun-control record, which makes him more acceptable to conservatives than either Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. More recently, he has substituted for longtime radio commentator Paul Harvey, where he has sounded, according to one Republican observer, “like a conservative Southerner.”

Still, Thompson’s appeal is less about who he is and more about who he isn’t.

But whatever the former Senator’s strengths, he isn’t an ideal candidate for Republicans.

Regardless of whether it is deserved, Thompson earned a reputation around the nation’s capital as someone who didn’t like to raise money and who didn’t have a high energy level in the Senate. When he had the chance to be handed a second full term, he turned it down, choosing instead to return to his acting career.

Obviously, there is a world of difference between an executive position such as president and a legislative one, and if he does enter the GOP contest, Thompson could say that he’s a “doer,” not a “talker,” who would feel more comfortable in an executive post.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who now chairs the Virginia GOP, recently told me that criticism of Thompson is not always on the mark, and some of it is reminiscent of criticism aimed at former President Ronald Reagan.

“He is easygoing and amiable,” says Gillespie, who is offering his advice to all candidates and emphasizes that he does not now have a candidate in the Republican race and will stay neutral throughout the contest for his party’s nomination. “And he is kind of laid-back. But Fred has been successful on a number of fronts.”

Thompson’s personal life also could come under scrutiny. The Senator’s second wife, Jeri, whom he married in 2002, is significantly younger than he is. The couple has two children, one age 3 and one less than a year old.

But it is undeniable that whatever the question marks around Thompson, he looks like a serious competitor for the Republican nomination even before he has announced whether he will run.

This is a strange election. Instead of the calendar narrowing the field and making the eventual nominee more apparent, the GOP race is looking more up for grabs, with none of the three hopefuls in the top tier seemingly able to overcome their liabilities. That gives Thompson an opening, and it is likely to remain that way for at least a few more months.

While I once thought that nobody who entered the race after April 15, or certainly Memorial Day, could possibly be nominated next year, I no longer can defend that conclusion, at least when it comes to the GOP race.

Thompson has not yet decided whether to run, though some of his allies have been sounding out consultants about their availability, should he decide to go forward.

A Thompson run would be a serious, possibly fatal, blow to the prospects of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who hopes to emerge (against either McCain or Giuliani) as the “conservative alternative.” Thompson would be a rival for that role, and the announcement of his candidacy would create at least a temporary boomlet that would eclipse Romney if the former governor had not already increased his standing in key polls.

Thompson’s announcement about whether he will make the race could come at any time, though nothing appears to be imminent. He actually may be better off delaying his entry until around the Iowa Straw Poll in August, bypassing an event that maximizes the importance of organization, which he doesn’t have and probably can’t create in a few months.

Anyway, I’m not dismissing Thompson anymore. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Fred Thompson may well have the ability to fill the one that exists in the GOP contest.