Is It Too Late for the Late Show?

By Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 18, 2007

DES MOINES, Aug. 17 -- Mobbed by voters at the Iowa State Fair, some of them carrying homemade signs encouraging him to run, Fred D. Thompson on Friday showed off the advantages he would enjoy as a celebrity latecomer to the 2008 Republican presidential campaign.

"A lot of people say it's late and all that, but I look at my history books and see where people announced in September, October, November," said the former Tennessee senator, who did not seem concerned that making his candidacy official sometime after Labor Day, as he is expected to do, might be late in the game.

"I wasn't there when they made those rules, so I'm not abiding by them," he said. "We've got plenty of time."

But Thompson's TV-star bravado could not disguise the fact that with nearly four months left until voting begins in the Iowa caucuses, he is facing major organizational hurdles in his plan. He has none of the machinery in place to win the first contest, a labor-intensive process that typically favors candidates with strong campaign structures. He has one full-time Iowa staff member; other Republicans have opened up multiple offices around the state.

Even on this trip, Thompson was only in town overnight, barely long enough to introduce himself to key party players.

Thompson, 64, acknowledged that there are questions about whether anyone could build the needed infrastructure in such a short span of time. In an interview on the fairgrounds, he said that his ability to connect with voters will decide his success or failure, despite the large organizational advantages that his rivals, chiefly former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, have had time to build.

"I don't know how much catch-up it is," Thompson said. "It's not a matter of that, as much as it is relating to the people. And if I do that, it doesn't really matter what anybody else has done."

Thompson has tried to turn his late entry into an advantage, asserting that he will run a nontraditional campaign -- and, in some respects, he is already doing just that. He skipped the Republican straw poll this month in Ames (and came in a distant seventh, well behind Romney, who came in first). During Thompson's whirlwind tour of the fair Friday, he wore Gucci loafers and rode a golf cart. That set him apart from other candidates visiting this week, such as Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who took his two young daughters on rides and sat down to tuck into a pork chop.

Thompson has said he will tap into new technologies to communicate with voters. But his campaign has also promised to participate in traditional campaign events, such as the Iowa fair. The balancing act seems to be working: In the latest CNN poll, Thompson is second, behind only Giuliani. In a Washington Post poll of Iowa Republican voters, Thompson is virtually tied with Giuliani for second, behind Romney.

At the fair, he was the fourth star-powered candidate to appear in three days, and he drew at least as large a gathering as Giuliani had two days earlier. Without mentioning President Bush by name, Thompson called for taking the country in a new direction, deploring the bitter partisanship of Washington and declaring that "the government can't any longer do some basic things that the government was supposed to do."

Leaving little doubt that he intends to appeal to his party's conservative base, Thompson said: "I am unabashedly pro-life. I am pro-Second Amendment. And I don't apologize for the United States of America. This country has shed more blood for the freedom of other people than all the other nations in the history of the world combined, and I'm tired of people feeling like they've got to apologize for America."

Thompson's entry into the race in the first week of September has been widely anticipated, with expectations for his performance running exceptionally high. Republican strategists said the announcement speech will be an important marker that either propels him to the front of the field or leaves him at the periphery.

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