The Thompson Flirtation

How far will the press take it?

Yesterday, Rasmussen Reports released its most recent survey poll among the 2008 GOP contenders with surprising news that former Tennessee Senator Fred Dalton Thompson, an undeclared candidate, is tied atop the field of Republican Presidential hopefuls. According to Rasmussen, “The newest face in the race [Thompson] is now tied with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani [at 27%].”

A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll also released yesterday reports Thompson’s surge in the survey of GOP primary voters. “Republicans antsy for a conservative standard-bearer in the presidential race have begun to rally behind Fred Thompson, propelling the former Tennessee senator to within hailing distance of the lead for the party’s nomination.”

“Law & Order” fans and Bible Belt conservatives alike are flirting with Thompson’s potential presidential bid. At this point, his candidacy is all but formally declared. His exploratory committee’s website indicates: “P.S. There’s a lot more coming, so keep coming back!”

But would the always judicious and above-the-fray Arthur Branch, New York City District Attorney on Law & Order, assume the role of Fred Dalton Thompson, President of the United States?

If not Arthur Branch, who is the real Fred Dalton Thompson? The press—columnists, reporters, and bloggers across the political spectrum—have grappled with this question: how do you define an actor-turned-politician-turned-lobbyist-turned-prospective GOP presidential frontrunner? A carefully-crafted, gruff grits-eating Southern homeboy, a key Watergate investigator, an American Enterprise Institute fellow? The answer: an enigma (check out the Detroit News’ apt cartoon).

So what are they saying about Thompson?

Washington Post K. Street Columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum writes that “Thompson will [run] portraying himself as a Washington outsider on the campaign trail. But over the past three years he showed up every two weeks or so at a lobbying and law firm in downtown D.C. to plot how best to persuade Congress to help a British company.” Birnbaum questions if he can reconcile his “outsider” message with years of lobbying and connections inside the beltway.

In his in-depth Weekly Standard profile, Stephen Hayes offers a biographical overview of Thompson. While many are unsure what he delivers, specifically, to the campaign, Hayes defines (and is confident in) Thompson’s conservative roots: “…[He] wanted to talk about growing up in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, and the many experiences that have shaped his conservatism. His background—in small town America, in the South, in the law, in politics—is something that might convince potential Thompson supporters that (despite years as a TV and movie star) he is just like them.”

Many also ask why he seeks the presidency and a jump from NBC primetime to the real White House Situation Room. Hayes’ answer: “Thompson made clear that he intends to campaign on ‘big issues’—entitlement reform at home and the imperative of an America that shapes world affairs rather than reacts to them. He indicated a willingness to criticize his own party’s failings, particularly on government spending, and a desire to return Republicans to their limited-government moorings.”

He also describes an engaging candidate who speaks directly to the American people: “When Thompson and his advisers talk about running a ‘different kind of campaign,’ this is what they mean. They believe he can use the Internet—in videos, audio files, and written commentary—to communicate directly with voters.”

The Thompson skeptics include conservative columnist George Will, who defines him in much different terms. “This [Thompson’s candidacy] is, of course, all about another actor. Republicans have scrutinized the current crop of presidential candidates and succumbed to the psychosomatic disease Reagan Deprivation. It is, however, odd that many Republicans who advertise their admiration for Reagan are so ready to describe Thompson as Reaganesque because he … what?” According to Will, he’s seen inside Washington as a lazy simpleton: “He’s burdened by a reputation for a less-than-strenuous approach to public life, and opaque thought…that looks suspiciously symptomatic of a mind undisciplined by steady engagement with complexities.”

Is Thompson really “all charm and no substance?” Liberal bloggers on the Daily Kos mock conservatives’ nostalgia for a conservative-darling celebrity candidate. “It really is hilarious how right-wingers can whip themselves up into a frenzy about ‘Liberal Hollywood,’ but shriek like little girls when a Hollywood celebrity winks at them.” Kos also questions Thompson’s his potential appeal as an online fundraised. “He thinks that claiming he’s the Howard Dean of 2007 actually makes him the Howard Dean of 2007. In other words, there’s lots of talk about being an internet sensation, but none of the indications that this might become a real-world phenomenon. Just saying doesn’t make it so.”

One point is clear from political analysts: Thompson’s non-candidacy candidacy is working—creating an underground buzz like no other, delighting Christian conservatives dissatisfied with “RudyMcRomney,” and garnering much attention in the press.

The press is curious and even flirtatious in thinking about Thompson’s potential bid. (Surely, with his entry, the race is even more interesting and hotly contested.) But more and more the press—like George Will—are treating him like any other candidate and offering a critical glimpse into his candidacy. We’ve seen many faces of him already, but if he does enter the political arena, the question remains how the media will define the true Fred Dalton Thompson. The answer will make or break his candidacy.

Time Magazine notes Thompson’s political/national security acting performances, which include President Ulysses S. Grant, FBI Agent Dale Grissom, White House Chief of Staff Harry Sargent, Real Admiral Joshua Painter, CIA Director Marshall, and others. Expect Thompson’s image makers, and those in the press who act as self-appointed image-makers, to chew this question over plenty in the coming weeks and months.

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Alexander Heffner is an intern at CJR.