Thompson Is for Real

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, April 2, 2007

In just three weeks, Fred Thompson has transformed the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. It is not merely that he has come from nowhere to double digits in polls. He is the talk of GOP political circles because he is filling the conservative void in the field.

Republican activists have complained for months that none of the Big Three -- Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney-- fits the conservative model of a conservative leader for a conservative party. The party faithful have been waiting for another Ronald Reagan. But in conversations with them the past year, nobody mentioned Thompson as the messiah until he appeared March 11 on "Fox News Sunday."

Thompson was surprised by the reaction to his statement that he was "giving some thought" to running. In the first Gallup Poll that listed Thompson (conducted March 23-25), he scored 12 percent -- amazing for someone out of public life for more than four years who has not campaigned. More important is his backing within the political community. Buyer's remorse is expressed by several House members who endorsed Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.

Thompson's popularity reflects weakness among announced Republicans, as reflected in the Gallup survey. McCain, no longer an insurgent but still not accepted by conservatives, is stuck at 20 to 25 percent. Former New York mayor Giuliani has dropped precipitously, from 44 to 31 percent, amid attacks on his ideology and personal life. Most startling, despite a well-financed, well-organized campaign, Romney has fallen to 3 percent.

Sophisticated social conservative activists tell me they cannot vote for Giuliani under any conditions and have no rapport with McCain or Romney. They do not view Sen. Sam Brownback, representing the social right, as a viable candidate. They are coming to see Thompson as the only conservative who can be nominated. Their appreciation of him stems not from his eight years as a U.S. senator from Tennessee but from his role as Manhattan district attorney on the TV series " Law & Order." The part was molded to Thompson's specifications as a tough prosecutor, lending him political star power.

Thompson's political origins as a protege of Sen. Howard Baker, leader of the Tennessee GOP's more liberal wing, prompted hard-line Senate conservatives to consider him a little too liberal. But the American Conservative Union gave him a lifetime Senate voting rating of 86 percent. It would have been close to 100 percent but for his repeated votes supporting McCain's campaign finance reform. None of the Big Three has been as consistently conservative as Thompson on tax policy, national security and abortion.

The principal complaint about Thompson concerns not his ideology but his work ethic. The rap is that he does not burn the midnight oil -- the identical criticism of Reagan. That carping may betray resentment that Thompson has emerged as a full-blown contender without backbreaking campaign travel and tedious fundraising.

Thompson's critics assert that, bored with his lucrative career as an actor, he is enjoying the 15 minutes of fame created by a chance TV interview and will not run. But he privately assures friends that this is for real. His performance on "Fox News Sunday" was no accident; he went on the show for the purpose of unveiling his possible candidacy.

Thompson did not leave public policy when he left the Senate. He has served on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He hardly knew Scooter Libby, but he felt Libby was getting a raw deal, appeared in the courtroom and helped raise money for his defense.

Friends bet that Thompson will run. He clearly wants to try, and his wife, Jeri, is all for it. But he wants to avoid the pitfalls encountered by Democrat Barack Obama, who may have hurt himself by starting his campaign too quickly.

I met Fred Thompson in 1974 when he was Howard Baker's 31-year-old minority counsel on the Watergate investigation. I considered him cool, careful and conservative. He still is, and that is how he would run for president, which appears in the offing.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company