Thompson Opens Smoothly, Soberly

DES MOINES -- Fred Thompson’s official campaign kick-off was high-tech, low-key and well-produced. His speech, a sober disquisition on the country’s perilous times in the context of Thompson’s own record, was certainly not purchased from the deli. He threw out only a few slabs of red meat if only to inoculate himself against complaints that he wasn’t proud to identify himself as a Republican.

Mostly, he inveighed against Washington.

“One of the arguments against term limits … is that is look all the expertise that you’d lose,” he said. “Is it lack of expertise that we’re lacking or is it lack of will to do the right thing? I think it’s the lack of will. And politicians kick the can down the road.”

“My friends, we need to deliver a message to Washington that we’re better than that and we need to start delivering that message by electing a president who will blow the whistle on that lack of accountability, and I’m the guy who will do that.”

Barack Obama couldn’t have written better pox-on-the-Beltway lines, and Thompson, even more than Obama, sounds like an outsider. But Thompson was a Washington lobbyist who lives inside the Beltway. It is not clear, as of yet, how many Republicans know this or whether, when they do, will reject his message as a simulacrum.

It may turn out to be a blessing that Thompson got rid of the Washington consultants who managed (or mismanaged) the first phase of his coming out as a candidate.

Though there is plenty of foment among the professional and elite class of the Democratic Party for a change message, no Republican except for John McCain is running to reform and reverse the moral failings of his party. And in that context, it’s hard to discern a thematic difference between McCain and Thompson. They seem to hold an identical position on the war on terror and Iraq – the campaign believes that national security debates will dominate the rest of the primaries and the general election.

“I am a man who loves his country, who is concerned about our future and knows that in the next years, it’s going to require strong leadership,” Thompson said. “We must show the determination that we are going to be United as the American people and do whatever is necessary to prevail not only in Iraq but in the worldwide conflict that lies beyond Iraq.”

Indeed, it’s not hard to see why Thompson and McCain were (are?) close friends, collaborated together on legislation (campaign finance), and even pat their audience on the back the same way: They share a worldview.

So we go back to first principles: what distinguishes Fred Thompson from John McCain and the other Republicans?

“From what I hear, he stands for the right positions on military and on the moral issues,” said one attendee, Wayne Murrow, a long-time caucus goer from Colfax, Iowa. “ For each of the others, there’s been at least one thing I don’t care for.”

A reporter asked whether Murrow knew about Thompson’s integral role in writing the McCain-Fein gold campaign finance legislation.

Mr. Murrow, who is distantly related to Edward R., didn’t know what McCain-Feingold was, and in any event, did not seem to care.

“He reminds me a lot of Ronald Reagan,” Allie Vicker, a thirty-something, from Des Moines.

Maggie Cradd, who attended the event with her 11-month-old daughter Campbell, did not mind Thompson’s elongated testing-the-waters phase and did not chalk it up to dawdling. “He waited and made a calculated decision to enter the race,” she said. “That’s what a leader does.”

Brian Lokesitch of Des Moines sported a Thompson sticker but said he was uncommitted. “All of the Republicans say the same things,” he said. “For me, it’s about attitude.”

From these conversations and others, two differences emerge. The first is that Thompson has less of a history running against his own party. And second – that old devil again – he just sounds a hell of a lot more presidential. He fits the archetype of a president. Even in his slimmer, Kelsey-Grammerish incarnation, he looks a president. All of this is cliché – so clichéd that you might wonder why it bears repeating. It bears repeating because it’s undeniable asset to Thompson, one that will open so many doors to him, one that will allow him to paper over discrepant parts of his resume.

“We have a candidate who needs a special type of campaign, “ Bill Lacy, Thompson’s campaign manager, told me. “So what we’ve tried to do is structure the campaign so it is built around his unique strengths, and those are that he is a genuine conservative, small town values, and that’s why we wanted to go with the video announcement on the website. And third, we’ve got a lot a lot of grassroots supports that we need to take advantage of.”

With the Iowa caucuses four months away, I wondered whether Thompson had enough time to build a harness for that energy and the general discontent within the Republican electorate.

Absolutely, adviser Rich Galen told me. Mitt Romney, he noted, barely breaks thirty percent in the polls. True – but candidates don’t generally win with majorities, either.

At most, “we’re maybe a couple of months behind,” acknowledges Robert Haus, Thompson’s Iowa state director. Still he was confident that Thompson would recruit plenty of precinct captains available who know the ins and outs of Iowa Republican audiences. The poo-bahs at campaign headquarters, he said, had given him free range to make Thompson’s campaign as “broad and as deep as we can make it.” That means a mix of retail politics events, town hall meetings and traditional stump speeches. Haus later shared a laugh with Dave Kochel, a veteran Iowa Republican strategist who works for Mitt Romney. Kochel was there to check things out, nothing more.

He probably did not come away too alarmed. Thompson’s advance team managed to fill the room, claiming to have signed in 450 supporters. (The consensus among the press corps was that about 200 people showed up – still impressive for the middle of a workday.) Make-work campaign posters dotted the walls. The highlight was the staging. Three mammoth projection screens were set in a vaguely Hellenistic, egg-shell colored-frame. There were no hitches. One woman fainted. The event started on time. Thompson worked the rope-line. The buses loaded up. And off he went.