Out-of-Town Critics Too Tough On Thompson?

Fred Thompson's campaign roadshow has largely been panned by the national media.
Fred Thompson's campaign roadshow has largely been panned by the national media. (By Jim Cole -- Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007

The reviews are in: Fred Thompson's plunge into the presidential campaign "was right up there with Britney Spears at the MTV awards."

Well, that was liberal New York Times columnist Gail Collins. How about a committed conservative?

"More belly-flop than swan dive . . . the strangest product launch since that of New Coke in 1985," writes columnist George Will.

Okay, they're in the opinion business. But news accounts have described the fledgling Thompson venture as "a comedy of errors" (Politico.com); drawing "mediocre reviews" (Washington Post); and maintaining a "languid" schedule that on one swing "kept him on a jumbo air-conditioned bus far more often than he is actually campaigning" (New York Times).

So is the former Tennessee senator sinking like a rock? "If you only read what the national media is writing," says Todd Harris, Thompson's communications director, "you'd be surprised to learn that in three of the five early states we are either in the lead or tied for first."

Harris says elite East Coast journalists are out of touch.

"Local media cover what happens and don't get wrapped up in the expectations game," he says. "National media aren't just covering what happened but what they expected to happen. . . . The national press is far less interested in the specifics of what's going on on the ground than in looking for things to cherry-pick, to write stories that fit what they think the narrative of the campaign ought to be."

For several months, national news organizations portrayed the veteran actor as a potential Republican savior. But in the four weeks since he joined the race, Thompson has largely been panned.

There is little doubt that Thompson has fumbled some questions and seemed less than fully prepared. Asked during a Florida trip about the possibility of oil drilling in the Everglades, Thompson said he couldn't rule anything out, adding: "No one has told me that there's any major reserves in the Everglades, but maybe that's one of the things I need to learn while I'm down here."

When Thompson was asked about the 2005 furor over whether brain-damaged Terri Schiavo should be kept alive, he told a Tampa station: "That's going back in history. I don't remember the details of it."

Thompson's less-than-grueling schedule has also revived media carping that the man who walked away from the Senate in 2002 seems a tad lazy. He made just one appearance last week, in Wyoming, limiting himself to fundraising and a call to Sean Hannity's radio show. Even his folksy speaking style has been denigrated as rambling. "Like watching Bob Dole -- without the Viagra," the Heritage Foundation's Robert Bluey wrote after one speech.

Chris Lehane, a former strategist for Al Gore and John Kerry, says Thompson "has done a number of things that have played into the negative story line, that this is someone who is not a particularly hard worker and doesn't necessarily do his homework. At the end of the day these are really caricatures, and are always exaggerations. But there tends to be some truth in the caricatures."

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