Thompson Hits the Campaign Trail

Fred Thompson is finally campaigning “for reals” and is trying to play catch-up in Iowa.

Fred D. Thompson took his bid for the White House to the campaign trail Thursday, vowing to compete aggressively for the support of Iowans and pitching steady, experienced and conservative leadership.

“I still have the same common-sense conservative beliefs I did when I ran in 1994,” the former senator said in a speech at a Des Moines conference center, a not-so-subtle reference to criticism about the changing positions of his main Republican rivals, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

“The preseason is over,” he declared. “Let’s get on with it.”

Football analogies! I love it. He appears to have kept in shape during his training camp holdout and, so far as I know, hasn’t been running any dog fitting rings or making it rain at strip joints. The question now is whether he has been studying his playbook.

Thompson begins at a big disadvantage in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, trailing Romney and several others in establishing an organization here, but his advisers believe it is a contest he cannot skip. They plan to target the conservative base here, a group that has consistently expressed frustration with its presidential choices this year.

“A lot of conservative voters have been holding their nose a little bit throughout the course of this campaign, trying to find a place where they were comfortable,” one senior Thompson adviser said. “Our message to them is ‘You can breathe easier now.’ “

This, apparently despite the fact “you smell the English leather on this guy, the Aqua Velva, the sort of mature man’s shaving cream” and “a little bit of cigar smoke.”

In Thursday’s speech, he pledged fidelity to a series of conservative principles — limited government, an aggressive foreign policy and lower taxes — and promised a commitment to securing the borders and appointing conservative judges.

Are any of the major contenders not promising those things?

His rivals are not about to give up their claim to the party’s right wing. Giuliani consistently touts his tax-cutting record in New York City and has staked out a hard-line position on the Iraq war. Romney has recently seized upon the issue of illegal immigration, pledging a crackdown and accusing Giuliani of presiding over a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants. But Thompson’s advisers believe that Romney and Giuliani are fundamentally flawed candidates: Romney has acknowledged “evolving” on core issues such as abortion, and Giuliani has a record of liberal positions on gun control, abortion and same-sex marriage that he has been forced to defend as he courts conservatives.

He’s not particularly experienced and has never run anything of consequence but he’s consistent on the bread and butter issues that appeal to the base. This, along with his manly charisma, seems to be Thompson’s appeal.

UPDATE: Adam Nagourney and Jo Becker believe Thompson is trying to sell himself as the Next Ronald Reagan (The headline, “For Thompson, Goal Is to Don Reagan Mantle,” is a bit confusing, as it had me wondering who the hell Don Reagan was.) He may have some trouble pulling that off:

Biographically and stylistically, Mr. Thompson, another former actor trying to become president, recalls the easygoing manner that Reagan used to advocate conservative solutions to the nation’s challenges, as he made clear with his announcement speech in Des Moines on Thursday. He spoke of “common-sense conservative beliefs,” including the notion that “we still get our basic rights from God, not government.”

Yet in some notable ways, Mr. Thompson is different from Reagan, and he has at times deviated from the orthodox conservatism that Reagan, after his death and nearly two decades removed from his presidency, has come to represent.

Mr. Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee, has at times voted in support of affirmative action, at other times against it; Reagan’s Justice Department consistently championed efforts to eliminate it. Mr. Thompson, a former trial lawyer, has voted against efforts to impose federal caps on punitive damages and lawyers’ fees, a central part of the conservative agenda. Although he consistently voted in favor of restrictions on abortion during his eight years in the Senate, his position has not always been as clear-cut, suggesting that he evolved on the issue much the way Reagan did. In questionnaires Mr. Thompson answered when first running for the Senate in 1994, he checked a box saying he believed abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy. Along with Senator John McCain of Arizona, Mr. Thompson was a sponsor of the campaign finance bill that was strongly opposed by conservatives and remains a target of their ire. He split his votes in the Senate on the articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton.

“Thompson was never an ideological conservative,” said Lou Cannon, a biographer of Ronald Reagan who has also written about Mr. Thompson. “He’s a very mainstream Republican. Reagan was more conservative.”

Reagan was, above all, an ideas guy. He wasn’t a policy wonk, as he was largely uninterested in details, but he had very firm ideas on the big picture that he’d wrestled with for decades. The source of Thompson’s principles is much less clear.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Thompson is not really my cup of tea but I think that Democrats would do well to take him seriously. Early signs are that he’s able to communicate in clear, terse fashion and is capable of running a viral campaign. That’s different from much of the rest of the Republican field.

  2. legion says:

    The annoying thing about Fred Thompson is that he stikes me as _exactly_ the same kind of shallow, incurious, strongly-opinionated-but-intolerant-of-other-views putz as Bush, but with some actual charisma and speaking ability. Think “all hat-no cattle” redux.

    The frightening thing is that sounds like _exactly_ what the GOP base really wants – a line-by-line continuation of GWB for the next 8 years, but with better scriptwriters. Unless he hits some sort of moral land-mine a la Larry Craig, he _will_ be the GOP nominee.

  3. legion says:

    The annoying thing about Fred Thompson is that he stikes me as _exactly_ the same kind of shallow, incurious, strongly-opinionated-but-intolerant-of-other-views putz as Bush, but with some actual charisma and speaking ability. Think “all hat-no cattle” redux.

    The frightening thing about Fred Thompson is that sounds like _exactly_ what the GOP base really wants – a line-by-line continuation of GWB for the next 8 years, but with better scriptwriters. Unless he hits some sort of moral land-mine a la Larry Craig, he _will_ be the GOP nominee.