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A Second Helping of Fred

We may well just have something here.

12:00 AM, May 3, 2007 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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AS REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL candidates gather tonight in Simi Valley, California, for the first of several debates, one potential candidate will be missing: Fred Thompson. The former senator from Tennessee, still mulling a run, will instead appear alone tomorrow at the Lincoln Day dinner of the Orange County Republicans.

Those familiar with his speech, which Thompson wrote himself, characterize it as optimistic but tough-minded about the serious challenges facing the country. He will touch on several of the big issues that will be at the center of any Thompson for president campaign, if he decides to run. (The Wall Street Journal's John Fund reports that both CNN and C-SPAN will broadcast Thompson's remarks live.)

"I think what you're seeing is the process Senator Thompson has been talking about," says one Thompson adviser. "He's talking to people, meeting people around the country, letting people hear from him and hear some of his ideas. The fact that you're going to be seeing and hearing him in more and more political and Republican settings should tell you where his head is at right now."

One indication that his effort is growing increasingly serious is that Thompson--who often shows up for interviews and speeches alone--will have with him three top advisers, including Mark Corallo, an experienced Washington hand, and Bob Davis, a longtime friend of Thompson who currently runs the Tennessee Republican Party.

A couple of weeks ago, I profiled Thompson for THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Although the piece ran at a meaty 6,000 words, there was much from my interview with Thompson that I wasn't able to include. So consider this a second helping of Fred.

Among many other things, we discussed the surge (he's for it, but thinks it was late and should have been bigger); cutting spending (he faults both the Bush administration and congressional Republicans for their failures); the Democrats' attempt to cut funding for the Iraq War ("tragic"); why he chose not to run for president in 2000 (he didn't want to be a "caretaker president"); his reading habits in college (Russel Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, National Review and, to understand the other side, the New Republic,); his frustrations in the Scooter Libby prosecution with the CIA ("they set this whole thing up") and the Justice Department (the case was brought because of "a breakdown" at DOJ); and which longtime Democrat he contributed to in 2006.

The Surge

On January 11, the day after President Bush announced his plans for a troop surge in Iraq, Thompson praised the changes in a commentary for ABC Radio. "I was struck by a couple of things he said that indicated not just a change in tactics but a whole new attitude with regard to what's necessary," Thompson said. "He's taking the gloves off." Thompson, a strong supporter of the Iraq War who voted to authorize it in October 2002, ended with a soft but direct critique: "I'll bet that a lot of folks who support the president on this are asking themselves 'What if we'd taken care of business this way two years ago?'"

I asked Thompson if he was among that group ("Yep."), whether the surge is the last hope for a victory ("In Iraq? Probably."), and what specifically had led him to offer that criticism of the White House.

"The greatest source of my frustration," he says, "is that in any situation involving military conflict in a democracy, the president has a limited window of opportunity to get the job done, or more precisely, to make progress. That window can be pretty wide if progress is being made. My concern is that we have waited so long that that window is almost closed. And you cannot carry on a war for any length of time at all without the support of the American people." He adds: "If we had done this three years ago, I just think we would have been in much better shape."

The Iraqi government, he says, was not ready to take over military responsibility for security in Iraq as quickly as the U.S. military tried to hand it over. "We misjudged," he says. "War is full of misjudgments. You make corrections. I don't fault the misjudgments as much as I d o the failure to begin moving in the right direction sooner. I've had concerns about rules of engagement in times past. It's kind of like--you're either in or you're out. There's no substitute for success and you garner no goodwill by appearing weak or being unsuccessful. And I've tried to resist the temptation to second-guess too much, but the facts are the facts."