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By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Almost immediately following the launch of Fred Thompson's long-anticipated presidential candidacy, important neutral Republicans decreed privately that it had crashed and burned on takeoff. Many of these critics had wanted to board the Thompson campaign but were repelled by his "gatekeepers." That helps explain their attitude now, and not merely because of any bruised feelings caused by their exclusion.

Thompson's late start is not in itself a fatal flaw. Still, it had been conceded in party circles that when Thompson finally became a candidate, his beginning needed to be memorable. It was not. While Thompson offered obligatory conservative slogans in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, he was not the white knight whom worried Republican loyalists desperately desire. His debut might have been more blood-stirring had his gatekeepers not turned away talented helpers.

Thompson's burial, nevertheless, is premature. The conditions persist that caused him, an actor supposedly finished with politics, to emerge suddenly in March as his party's potential savior. The leading Republican contestants -- Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain-- all have glass jaws in the view of neutral Republican Mike Murphy (though Murphy says Thompson does as well). The Republican electorate is still looking for the forceful, dynamic conservative many have thought Thompson might be.

Failure to use the past six months to craft an inspirational, exciting campaign can be partly explained by the exclusionist attitude of the old friends and political professionals in possession of Thompson's candidacy. An example of those excluded is Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 campaign and is regarded as one of Washington's keener political minds. Reed donated money to McCain but had not committed to him and was ready to join Thompson's team. He would have given Thompson an experienced political manager who knows how to navigate the Republican nominating process.

Reed participated in one private meeting with Thompson but got no further. Three sources told me that the gatekeeper who excluded him was Mary Matalin, a longtime Republican operative dating back to George H.W. Bush's campaigns. She is a Washington insider who does not espouse the socially conservative views Thompson is expected to project by those Republicans in search of a nominee. Matalin did not return my telephone call.

Jeff Bell, an innovative conservative theoretician whose experience goes back to Ronald Reagan's 1976 presidential campaign, also wanted to help. His expertise could be invaluable to a candidate trying to fill the Reagan niche. Bell did not even get as far as a meeting with Thompson, though one was scheduled, abruptly canceled and then not rescheduled. It's not clear which gatekeeper kept Bell out, but he was involved in a dispute many years ago with Ken Rietz, a Republican activist who was in charge of putting together Thompson's campaign.

These are not isolated cases, but other Washington insiders repelled at the Thompson gates do not want the embarrassment of having their names published. One Republican activist who excels as both a policy wonk and fundraiser has repeatedly offered himself to Thompson -- without getting a response. A high-level Bush administration official with experience in politics and finance has sent Thompson one r?sum? after another -- without a response.

The constricted Thompson circle may explain early shortcomings. After failing to perform opposition research on himself, Thompson has been taken by surprise by the dissection of his career. No new initiatives accompanied the unveiling of his candidacy. Skipping the Sept. 5 debate in Durham, N.H., while announcing his candidacy on Jay Leno's television program was a startling affront to New Hampshire.

Thompson's great asset remains the collective glass jaw of his opponents. Giuliani is not only a social liberal in a socially conservative party but is burdened with a life story that makes Democrats tremble with anticipation. Romney, who has transformed himself from liberal to conservative on social issues, seems to many Republicans to be a multimillionaire investment banker willing to make any deal (though his biggest problem with evangelicals and strict Catholics is his Mormon faith). McCain seemed his old feisty self in the New Hampshire debate, but on Sunday he came across as melancholy on ABC's "This Week." So there is still a void. But can Thompson fill it?

?2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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