Political Capital with John Harwood

Fred Thompson Hoping Chaos Brings Political Order


Fred Thompson begins something next week that in most circumstances would seem totally implausible: limping into a presidential race long after competitors set off with a running head start. Smart money isn't betting the ex-Tennessee senator will overtake them. His hope is that the chaotic, shifting 2008 guideposts offer precisely that kind of course that a chaotic, shifting campaign can navigate. It won’t take long after next week’s web cast launch to start learning whether he’s right.

During months of hesitation up to now, Mr. Thompson has appeared determined to prove that, as detractors maintain, he lacks the drive necessary to win the White House. His wife Jeri Kehn Thompson, herself a political consultant, has fueled stereotypes about meddling candidate spouses by taking an active role--as one manager and two press aides cycled in and out even before the campaign began. The new communications director, Todd Harris, hasn’t left his lobbying and public relations firm even while joining Team Thompson. (update: Harris says preserving ties to his firm, from which he's on leave, doesn't indicate any hesitation about a full-bore commitment to Thompson's campaign)

Perhaps more consequential is uncertainty over just what Mr. Thompson’s message will be. Conservative true believers have spent much of 2007 dreaming that the man who plays Arthur Branch on "Law and Order" might turn into a 21st century version of the Gipper--and not just because he, like Ronald Reagan, boasts Hollywood acting chops. Yet as he prepares to hit the trail, he hasn’t quelled the doubts of Republican anti-tax mavens like Grover Norquist and Dan Mitchell about his tax-cutting bona fides.

But it’s useful to remember why those conservatives first began pining for Mr. Thompson, and lifted him to second place in the polls though he stood for little more than “none of the above.” Remarkably, in a political party defined in the Bush era by its unalloyed conservatism, there remains no consensus champion of the right.

Rudy Giuliani sits atop national polls but, given his support for abortion rights, no one can be sure he’ll stay there when advertising bullets fly and voting starts. The same goes for Mitt Romney, who leads in Iowa and New Hampshire but will face tougher attacks over flip-flops. Longstanding skepticism from the right remains a barrier for John McCain even if he revives his cash-strapped campaign.

That represents one opening for Mr. Thompson. Another is that the primary track the rest of the field has long been pounding keeps changing underneath their feet. In recent days, Michigan has taken steps to accelerate its nomination contest to Jan. 15--yet another threat, following Florida’s move to Jan. 29, to the traditional primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire.

No one knows how this brawl among states will turn out. But the more the primary calendar changes, the greater the opening for a latecomer--even a wobbly one like Mr. Thompson.

Questions?  Comments?  Write to politicalcapital@cnbc.com.