A strange thing happened a few weeks back when I went to the Café Promenade at the Mayflower Hotel for an off-the-record interview with an unpaid adviser to the non-campaign of unannounced presidential candidate Fred Thompson.
Fred Thompson showed up.
Thompson was there to have lunch with Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a powerhouse consultant with ties to the White House. The two men worked together in the fall of 2005 on the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. Thompson had invited Gillespie to lunch to discuss a potential presidential bid.
On March 11, just a week before, Thompson had appeared on Fox News Sunday and told Chris Wallace that he was giving "serious consideration" to running for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Ever since, advisers on other campaigns have tried to figure out how he'll affect the race if he runs.
Several patrons in the restaurant recognized Thompson. One well-dressed man with thick white hair approached him for an autograph. It's possible that this man wanted the autograph because Thompson served for eight years as a senator from Tennessee. But it's more likely that he wanted a memento of the day he ate at the same restaurant as Arthur Branch, the sagacious district attorney on Law & Order; Law & Order: Special Victims Unit; Law & Order: Criminal Intent; Law & Order: Trial by Jury; and Conviction, a spin-off of, well, you can probably guess. The same man returned to the table twice more. Each time Thompson put his conversation on hold and graciously tolerated the interruption.
After an hour, Thompson and Gillespie--currently chairman of the Republican party of Virginia--rose and left the restaurant. Ten minutes later, Thompson walked back in with former senator Bill Frist. They were led to a different table, but Thompson's waitress was the same. She laughed as she took his new order. Thompson says this second lunch was unplanned. Although he and Frist talk daily, the two Tennesseans met this time by chance. Finding they both had gaps in their schedules, they spent the next two hours at Café Promenade talking about a Fred Thompson for President campaign.
There is some discontent among Republicans with the current choices for the party's nominee in 2008. The complaints are well known: Senator John McCain, the maverick Republican, is too much maverick and not enough Republican. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani is thought to be too willful and too liberal: He recently suggested he would allow his new wife to attend cabinet meetings and reaffirmed his support for federal funding of abortion. Mitt Romney seems pleasant and competent, but pleasant and competent doesn't beat Hillary Clinton. Senator Sam Brownback is unknown and uncharismatic. And former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is from Arkansas.
According to an adviser to one of the leading candidates, the rationale for a Thompson run is best illustrated--as so many things are--by The Simpsons. In one episode, Homer Simpson's civic-minded neighbor Ned Flanders tells a large crowd of fellow Springfield citizens that they must choose someone to lead an anticrime campaign in the town.
"Who should lead the group?"
"You," shouts a man from the crowd. The entire mob begins to chant.
"Flanders! Flanders! Flanders!"
When Flanders humbly begins to explain that he doesn't have much experience in such matters, Moe the Bartender cuts him off.
The crowd joins in.
"Someone else! Someone else! Someone else!"
One obvious advantage Fred Thompson has is that he's someone else.
In recent Republican presidential preference polls, Thompson tends to run third, behind Giuliani and McCain but ahead of Romney and the rest of the field. In a Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll released last week, Thompson came in second, just ahead of McCain, with support from 15 percent of those surveyed. In late March, Thompson won a straw poll of Republicans in conservative Gwinnett County, Georgia, earning more votes than all of the other candidates combined. And Iowa Republican party executive director Chuck Laudner told the Washington Times, "He's the biggest buzz in the state."