After former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson acknowledged in mid-March that he was considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination, supporters of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were quietly acknowledging the obvious: Their candidate was political roadkill if Thompson entered the contest anytime soon. [IMGCAP(1)]
But things look very different now. Thompson’s decision to delay his entry into the contest until this week not only damaged his own prospects but, more importantly, breathed life into a Romney candidacy that easily could have been snuffed out before it had begun.
Initially, coming from the right side of the ideological spectrum, Thompson appeared to fill the vacuum created when Virginia Sen. George Allen was eliminated as a credible presidential candidate. Even more important, the attorney-turned-actor-turned-Senator- turned-actor seemed to appeal to conservatives looking for “another Ronald Reagan.”
Romney, a Mormon with little national name recognition and no following in all- important Iowa, had problems with evangelical Christians in his party, and his flip-flopping on gay rights and abortion meant he’d have a tough time appealing to party conservatives.
So a Thompson bid would attract the same kind of Republicans that Romney hoped to attract and fill the void in the race that the Massachusetts Republican hoped to fill.
But that was before Romney ran more than 3,000 gross ratings points of television ads in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and before the former Massachusetts governor had introduced himself to the voters of those two key states.
Romney did such an effective job building the best Republican organization in the Hawkeye State that two other GOP candidates, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain, blinked at the thought of challenging him at the Iowa straw poll, leaving that event to him and to second-tier Republican hopefuls.
Polling in Iowa and New Hampshire currently shows Romney leading in both states, with Thompson trailing badly.
In Iowa, Romney generally draws around 30 percent in polls of likely caucus attendees, while Giuliani and Thompson fight it out for second, drawing in the low to mid-teens. In New Hampshire, Romney gets the support of about 30 percent of primary voters, while Giuliani is about 10 points back and McCain and Thompson battle it out for third, often in the low teens.
If Thompson’s delay allowed Romney to establish himself in the two key early states, it also allowed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to create some buzz from a second-place showing at the straw vote.
Huckabee remains a second-tier hopeful, primarily because he lacks the resources to compete with the top-tier candidates. But Huckabee’s strong debate showings, popularity among members of the media and straw vote showing has attracted some grass-roots attention, particularly among conservatives. The Arkansas Republican has received a noticeable bump in American Research Group polling in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Any support Huckabee has garnered over the past few weeks undoubtedly would have been available to Thompson over the summer, when the Tennessean was hemming and hawing about his potential candidacy rather than energetically wooing caucus attendees and primary voters.
With Thompson out of the race, conservatives uncomfortable with Romney have had the opportunity to look elsewhere, and some have been impressed with the former Arkansas governor.
If all of this isn’t enough of a reason to wonder about Thompson’s strategy and chances, a mid-January Michigan primary could be another headache for the former Tennessee Senator.
Initially, even if Thompson fell short in Iowa and New Hampshire, he looked well-positioned in the third big GOP presidential contest: South Carolina — that is, until Michigan legislators decided to move the state’s primary to mid-January and ahead of South Carolina’s.
A mid-January Michigan primary alters the nomination process significantly for Republicans, since it adds a big, expensive state into the early mix and makes the first Southern state the fourth contest, not the third. Money does not now look like one of Thompson’s great assets.
In delaying his entry into the Republican race, Thompson has looked indecisive and weak. He has lost potential supporters and contributors to other campaigns. And he has limited the strategic options of his campaign.
But maybe more than anything else, he gave an opening first to Romney and more recently to Huckabee that neither would have had. So instead of squeezing them out of the race in the summer, Fred Thompson finds himself squeezed in the fall.
Is Thompson a problem for Romney? Sure, but not as much of a problem as Romney now is for Thompson.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.