Everything to play for

George Will and Robert Novak both question the viability of Fred Thompson’s campaign in columns that appear today. Novak argues that Thompson has been unable to craft an inspirational exciting campaign in part because his “gatekeepers” have excluded various political operatives that could have helped him. I have no way assessing the potential value of this or that excluded operative, but it seems premature to conclude that Thompson’s campaign is unexciting until we see how he performs on the “stump” over the next month, and what kind of reaction he receives from Republicans in key primary states. So far, I’d say his biggest unmet need in terms of campaign staff is an “anti-rambling” specialist.
Will’s column consists of an attack on Thompson’s position on campaign finance reform, and criticism of his inability coherently to defend that position. Based on this attack, Will concludes that Thompson’s campaign isn’t necessary and may not last longer than New Coke did (80 days).
Thompson’s campaign was thought to be necessary, or at least desirable, because (as Novak explains in his column), the three front-runners all were seen as having substantial drawbacks. Will doesn’t address this matter. Of course, perceived defects in the Giuliani, Romney and McCain candidacies wouldn’t matter if Thompson were truly the equivalent of New Coke. But pointing to his admitted incoherence on one issue — campaign finance reform — hardly justifies pinning that label on Thompson. This is particularly true when one recalls that McCain sponsored the legislation that Will rightly detests, and Giuliani and Romney, though not around to vote for it, both have spoken favorably about campaign finance reform legislation in the past.
The only other point Will makes is that Thompson doesn’t attend church regularly. Will sniffs that “going to church is, of course, optional — unless you are aiming to fill some supposed piety void in the Republican field.” But Thompson isn’t attempting to fill a piety void, he’s attempting to fill what some see as a “conservatism” void in a field whose front-runners consist of one candidate who many consider socially liberal, another candidate who many consider socially liberal until a few years ago, and a third candidate who wrote the McCain-Feingold legislation and led the charge for what many people consider amnesty.
Thompson may face an uphill battle for the nomination. Yet, having only just begun to fight, he sits second in the polls only about 5 percentage points beyond Giuliani. Whatever opportunities he has missed in the past six months, and whatever George Will thinks of him, Thompson still has everything to play for.
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