Political Capital with John Harwood

Fred Thompson: Off To A Slow Start?

In recent days the excitement of Fred Thompson's campaign team has been mixed with this nagging fear: that expectations for Thompson's performance upon entering the GOP presidential race might prove too high to meet. Today's kickoff event showed why.

Thompson drew roughly 200 people into the Convention Center in downtown Des Moines. Not bad for some candidates in some locations, but underwhelming for the opening round of a putative heavyweight in the GOP battle. Yes, as his aides pointed out, it was in the middle of a workday. But Barack Obama drew twice that many in mid-day to Storm Lake on Wednesday, and to the small farm town of Carroll the night before.

Thompson was true to his Arthur Branch persona from "Law and Order," cool and commanding. That's a good style for TV. But he didn't electrify the crowd, which applauded politely. He will need to generate real enthusiasm in order to build the organization he'll need here in Iowa to compete in the caucuses.

His speech seemed to ramble at times--one challenge for him will be distilling a core message beyond the "Security-Unity-Prosperity" that adorns his campaign posters. Someone from a group calling itself Conservatives Against Fred Thompson--origins so far unknown--distributed flyers claiming Thompson is "anti-gun."

The race to define Fred Thompson--by himself and his rivals--has now begun in earnest. He's offering himself as a son on the 1994 revolution, and they'll be picking away at holes in his resume and record. Thompson has plenty of potential, but also a lot to prove.

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