Iowa or Bust 

Thompson launches do-or-die bus tour

Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign will probably make history as a squandered opportunity.
Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign will probably make history as a squandered opportunity. Republicans were dissatisfied with their field of candidates and looking for an electable, conservative alternative when Thompson sauntered into the race, and he started with great promise near the top of the national polls. Now, he’s all but finished even before the voting starts, the victim of a combination of his own bungling and relentless media hit jobs. (The latest: Fred’s so lazy that, rather than campaign over the weekend—gasp!—he went Christmas shopping at Neiman Marcus.)

The Law & Order actor has been forced into an 11th-hour barnstorming bus tour of Iowa to try to salvage his campaign, but no one is giving him much chance. He’s down in the polls and so low on cash that he’s not sure he can keep his TV ads on the air, and it would probably take the implosion of Mike Huckabee’s surprising candidacy to give Thompson new life.

If Thompson goes down, at least he’s doing it his own way. He has spent much of his late-starting, ill-fated presidential bid gleefully poking at the eyes of the media. He answered a set of sophomoric questions from The Associated Press with admirable sarcasm:

What’s your favorite joke? “Presidential debates.”What’s your favorite keepsake? “Trophy wife.”What’s your favorite nickname? “Mr. President.”What do you like to do on a “lazy day”? “Campaigning.”

In a twist, Thompson won rave reviews for flat-out refusing to answer a question during a grouchy performance during an otherwise forgettable debate last week near Des Moines, the last for the Republicans before Iowa’s neighborhood caucuses on Jan. 3.

The candidates were asked to raise their hands if they felt climate change was a serious threat and caused by humans, to which Thompson responded, “I’m not doing hand shows today. You wanna give me a minute to answer that?”

Des Moines Register editor Carolyn Washburn, the debate moderator, wouldn’t. “Then I’m not gonna answer it,” Thompson said.

Some commentators, going a bit overboard, compared it with Ronald Reagan’s famous “I-paid-for-this-microphone” moment. The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol: “My strong sense, from several visits to Iowa, is that Iowa Republicans really dislike The Des Moines Register. So, more perhaps than some national commentators appreciate, the Fred Thompson takedown of Carolyn Washburn could help ignite his Iowa campaign in the home stretch.”

In any event, the positive press was fleeting because the next news cycle revealed that the Thompson campaign is so inept it failed to collect enough signatures—only 500 were needed—to qualify for the ballot in Delaware’s Feb. 5 primary. Duncan Hunter was the only other candidate who didn’t make the ballot. Oh well, Thompson’s campaign will almost certainly collapse before Delaware votes anyway.

By most accounts, Iowans have never been especially enamored of Thompson, mainly because until this week he hasn’t spent enough time asking for their votes. Thompson is polling a weak third or fourth in Iowa now. Even his supporters say they’ve wondered where he’s been. At one time, Thompson had only 12 paid staffers in Iowa, a state that requires intensive organizational efforts because of the difficulty of getting people to go to caucuses on a cold night and spend an hour or two haggling over politics. Huckabee has focused almost exclusively on Iowa and, as he has risen in the polls on the strength of support from the state’s many evangelical Christians, his campaign has caught fire elsewhere. Huckabee now beats Thompson nationally and in South Carolina, a must-win state for Fred even if he makes it past Iowa. Thompson, not Huckabee, was once thought to be the leading contender to carry the mantle of the social conservatives.

“They need more boots on the ground,” says Steve Carlson, a Thompson supporter in Sioux City who is a leader in the Iowa Christian Alliance. “There’s a lot of interest in Fred, but he’s never had much of a visible presence here. That’s just being honest.”

Even in Tennessee, Thompson’s support is no longer ironclad. At the annual pasta-and-politics dinner on Nov. 30 in suburban Memphis’ Bartlett, Thompson squeaked past Huckabee by only three votes in a straw poll of 150 Republicans.

Tracy DeWitt, president of the Republican club that holds the dinner, has scraped his Fred ’08 sticker off his SUV bumper and slapped on a Huckabee sticker. “I jumped on the bandwagon like everybody else with Fred and there was a lot of buzz and commotion. But then I heard Fred talk, and I thought, ‘Man, something’s missing.’ I don’t think his heart’s in this race. It almost appears that he was talked into running. I’m being blunt, but that’s the truth.”

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