For what ails Republicans, we will soon find out whether Fred Thompson is the cure or whether he is a sugar pill.
Even his admirers admit that his popularity so far is just that -- popularity -- like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, something to gawk at and admire.
At a certain point in every race, candidates acquire celebrity momentum. Barack Obama had two such points: in December and then in January; Howard Dean had two in 2003; John Kerry had one -- right after Iowa. Fred Thompson has already had one -- months ago, when he first started to talk about running. He has another right now, and it will not last.
When candidates wear the lucky celebrity coat, every network morning show wants them on RIGHT NOW. Every magazine writer wants to put him on the cover. This -- meaning -- this week -- is Thompson's second moment. He probably won't get another moment. He can make the best of it and break free from the stereotypes which have settled on his candidacy, or he can live up to them. Thompson is no dummy, so he should get this.
Thompson benefits from the placebo effect. Apparently, some Republicans -- not enough, but some -- see him, hear him, and conclude that he's a consistent conservative. For the reason, he needs to get some meat on them bones, he'd better clothe the naked emperor, and quickly! Thompson is no dummy; for the sake of his ambition, he'd better get this.
As the press watches Fred Thompson today and over the next few days, we'll look for signs of laziness -- we'll be hyper-alert for signs that Thompson is hesitant, tentative, slow-moving. We'll notice if he doesn't shake all the hands he sees or zips through a stump speech. In one way, Thompson can turn this perception into a boon: the expectations for him to a compelling retail candidate are so low, that even a fairly maudlin performance will shatter them. Thompson is no dummy; he gets this.
Thompson's campaign manager is Bill Lacy, Jr., formerly of the Robert Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He was a deputy political director in the Reagan White House, was the RNC political director after that, and managed Thompson's come-from-behind victory in 1994. In 1999, he helped Thompson explore the possibility of running for president that year. Over the past few weeks, Thompson's hand-picked campaign manager, Bill Lacy, stepped in to save the floundering testing-the-waters effort, reorganizing every department and recruiting an entirely new roster of staff. In the process he stepped on many toes, firing Linda Rozett because she was too inexperienced and kicking out Jim Mills, the former Fox News producer, ostensibly because he was not enough of a team player. According to Fox News's Carl Cameron, Lacy nixed a planned announcement speech in favor of a Leno/Internet kick-off, reasoning that the latter would be bigger, even as the former would be more proper, more traditional, more intellectually correct somehow. Thompson deserves a campaign manager who knows him and fits his personality. He also deserves staffers who are loyal to him and to the vision he entrusts to his campaign manager. Say what you will about the turnover of the turnover: there were lots of leaks. That was good for us journalists and bad for Thompson. Now, Thompson is surrounded by guys he trusts. One of them refused my offer of a lift from the airport in Des Moines last night; he had too many confidential telephone calls to make. Discretion counts; Thompson, finally, gets this.
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