Bad Timing

By Michael D. Shear
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Fred Thompson may yet win the Republican presidential nomination next year. But if he doesn't, his story is likely to be that of a perfect opportunity squandered.

When the actor and retired senator began thinking about running for president in early spring, the Republican world seemed to be screaming out for someone just like him to save it.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona was the front-runner but was beginning to falter. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani was emerging as a leading candidate but seemed to be having serious problems because of his personal life and his liberal policies. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was unknown and prone to switching his positions.

The party -- and especially its religious wing -- was looking for a staunch conservative with a national identity and an inspiring presence that could fill a room.

Enter Thompson, stage right: A senator with a long antiabortion record, a bit of foreign policy knowledge, a popular gig on conservative talk radio and a role as a hard-charging New York prosecutor on "Law & Order." In Hollywood, they would say he was born for the part.

But movies sometimes flop, and so, too, presidential campaigns. Timing can be everything -- schedule the movie to open at the wrong time and you never know how it will go. In Thompson's case, he let the magic moment pass -- as even his campaign advisers and strongest supporters now acknowledge. Instead of jumping in at the beginning of July, when the anticipation was the greatest, Thompson waited until just after Labor Day, by which time many Republicans had allied with someone else. Worse, Thompson's will-he-or-won't-he tease increased expectations for his campaign, making it all but impossible for him to satisfy the pundits, the activists or even the voters.

Thompson's team waited because he wasn't ready. His late start meant he had to build a campaign organization in a fraction of the time others took. And Thompson, a policy wonk, wanted to contemplate the big issues before he jumped into the fray, former aides and advisers say.

All of which might have been fine if his performance upon entering had been flawless. After a summer when his still-unofficial campaign was plagued by defections and turnover, his announcement tour was widely panned as flat and vague. And he quickly annoyed the religious conservatives who had placed their hope in him by not supporting a federal amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He made several early gaffes -- suggesting that it wasn't important to go after Osama bin Laden and saying that he didn't know enough to comment about the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case.

And instead of aggressively challenging the longtime critique that Thompson is lazy, the campaign seemed to feed it. While other candidates were crisscrossing the early-voting states, Thompson took it easy throughout the fall. His public schedule would often show only one event a day, followed by several days off the stump. His aides point out that he remains well positioned in some polls. He routinely comes in a close third in national surveys and second or third in South Carolina, the first Southern state to vote. But he is stuck in fourth place in Iowa and is struggling to get more than 2 or 3 percent support in New Hampshire.

It is true that he has been specific about some of the policy goals he would pursue if elected. His plan to save Social Security is not just campaign rhetoric. It's a set of specific proposals that go beyond what any of his rivals have set forth.

And expectations are now so low for Thompson that he could use that to his advantage. But if his campaign fizzles, many of those who helped him run may ask whether things could have gone another way, if only the timing had been different.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company