From a niche to a battleground

The Economist rehearses the conventional wisdom that Fred Thompson’s “campaign presidential campaign has gotten off to a shaky start,” having been “racked by endless problems.” In my view, The Economist overstates these problems which, in its telling, consist mostly of “inside baseball” campaign staffing issues and the fact that Thompson doesn’t measure up to Ronald Reagan.
Meanwhile, one of Thompson’s biggest problems goes unremarked upon — the fact that the landscape of the campaign has changed significantly since word that he would likely run began to circulate many months ago. Back then, the two leading contenders were Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. Both appealed primarily to center-right Republicans, as opposed to the conservative base. They seemed likely to divide fairly evenly the minority side of the party, while drawing little enthusiasm from the majority side. Mitt Romney seemed like the only figure with a chance to win over a large portion of the base, but he was not terribly well-known and his bona fides as a social conservative were being forcefully questioned. Thus, to oversimplify, Thompson could look forward to competing with the weakest of the big-three announced candidates for the lion’s share of the Republican vote.
Today, however, it’s questionable whether McCain poses much of a threat to Giuliani in the center-right sweepstakes. By the same token, Romney no longer looks like the weakest of the big-three, having made considerable progress with the base. Mike Huckabee may also be able to compete for that portion of the vote, especially in southern states where Thompson probably has an edge over Romney. In short, what looked like a niche for Thompson in the party’s sweet-spot now looks like a battleground, and what looked like a battleground for Giuliani now looks like a niche.
But Thompson still has a reasonable shot. If he’s strong out of the gate, the money and the infra-structure should fall into place, and no one will remember that he replaced this or that staffer during the summer. Moreover, the fact that Giuliani and especially Romney are in better shape now than half a year ago doesn’t mean they are without substantial weaknesses, much less that Thompson can’t effectively take them on. Thompson’s public and private pre-campaign appearances have been of uneven quality, but he clearly brings much to the table — a solid, well-rounded conservative record, a likeable folksy style, and (at his best) a powerful presence.
I suspect that most Republican primary voters have not yet formed a solid preference for any candidate (I certainly haven’t). If so, Thompson still has everything to play for. However, if this were a horse race, one might have to rate him a longer shot than both Giuliani and Romney, and that probably wouldn’t have been the case a few months ago.
Via Real Clear Politics
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