Fred Thompson's Week In Context

Two days of high profile resignations, an NBC News report that fundraising has slowed down considerably, open anxiety from Thompson supporters -- it seems like a hex has been cast on his presidential bid.

What's going on?



To a certain extent, these growing pains are normal. It's extraordinarily difficult to quickly build a presidential campaign from scratch. Back-end tasks include creating a budget, renting headquarters, hiring lawyers and compliance experts, dealing with the press, dealing with allies, dealing with potential fundraisers, recruiting political operatives, recruiting supporters, managing expectations -- and lots more. As new employees come aboard, the number of voices, the levels of vetting, the procedural hurdles all multiply. Campaigns at this stage often require a single puppet master. Good Ole' Fred has one: wife Jeri Kehn Thompson.

Thompson unwisely allowed tension to develop between his wife and the rest of the campaign staff. Ex-campaign-manager designate Tom Collamore did not mesh with Jeri Thompson and the friction between the two was evident to the rest of the staff. At times, Kehn Thompson would simply countermand Collamore's instructions. She has final hiring authority -- something that every campaign manager needs and Collamore never had. The Thompson presidential staff will be her staff more than Fred's.

J.T. Mastranadi is one of the Republican Party's best opposition researchers. His "ground" skill -- his ability to unearth new information -- is the envy of many competitors. He was hired two weeks ago, and when he began to plan for the campaign, he found it difficult to get his questions answered. He quickly concluded that Thompson had yet to get his affairs in order, friends say.

Now -- the strong hand of Jeri Thompson is not necessarily a force for evil. Spouses can be good campaign managers: Jenny Sanford managed her husband Mark's first four successful congressional and gubernatorial campaigns in South Carolina. But Thompson's press has been brutal and borderline sexist, a consequence of her many detractors speaking on background to reporters. Thompson has worked as a professional political consultant and knows the basics of putting a campaign together. And Fred Thompson trusts her to make decisions. Incoming staffers need to accept that Jeri is first among equals. It is unclear whether any adviser will rise as a counterweight to the spouse. Probably not: Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Edwards, Bill Clinton and Ann Romney are probably the most powerful quartet of spouses to exert influence in a presidential race ever. No one on their respective campaigns comes close, although John Edwards and Hillary Clinton have been known to weigh the advice of others against the influence of wife and husband.

It took about eight months for John McCain to discover that lines of authority matter. Presidents ought to be competent managers. If a candidate can't get his campaign right, then it's fair to wonder how he'd structure the White House staff, what power he'd delegate to the cabinet, who would make decisions in his absence and more. The presence of a single decider, in and of itself, should not count against the Thompson campaign and is probably essential at this point. The resignations and backbiting suggest that the campaign cannot control its own image, and the responsibility lies solely with the candidate. Ole Fred has to fix the problems. His supporters will lose faith in him if he dawdles and his fundraising will dry up even more.

As Chuck Todd points out, one reason why two resignations matter is that there is nothing else that matters -- Thompson isn't making news or campaigning.

The role of ex-Sen. Spencer Abraham is unclear, but integrating him into the campaign will help. He is one of the party's best practitioner-strategists and has experience running campaigns nationwide. He's less of a grassroots guy, but he can raise money from the grasstops. One Republican on the outer circle of the campaign said that Abraham will be the campaign's chief liaison to politicians and fundraisers and will be one of its public faces. Randy Enwright, as has been widely reported, is one of the main reasons why Florida is only barely competitive for Democrats anymore. He is that good.

"We're on track," communications director Linda Rozett said yesterday. The message from the survivors on the campaign staff seems to be: a few scuff marks only matter to the press. Maybe. But Thompson is losing fair-weather fans. The opinion elite at National Review Online often pull base opinion behind them, and they're starting to get mighty anxious.

Thompson expects to open a presidential committee (and call it an exploratory committee) in August -- although probably after the ABC News debate on August 5. Thompson is slated on the Ames straw poll ballot, so he might well establish the committee in the week between the debate and the straw poll. Thompson's formal announcement tour is planned for the first week after Labor Day.