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Testing the Waters

Fred Thompson is running.

10:21 PM, May 29, 2007 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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FRED THOMPSON IS RUNNING for the Republican presidential nomination. In a conference call Monday, Thompson addressed a group of more than 100 supporters and fundraisers whom the campaign has dubbed First Day Founders. He told them that he would be setting up an organization that will allow him to begin raising money and recruiting staff.

In official campaign finance parlance, the move represents a shift from "giving serious consideration" to a presidential bid, as Thompson said he would do back in March, as a non-candidate, to a "testing the waters" period where one is, in effect, a candidate-in-waiting with a campaign-in-preparation. Thompson advisers point out that the new testing-the-waters entity is not quite a campaign committee, though it will officially begin accepting contributions on June 4. On that day--the First Day, as it were--the campaign will take in donations that it can then tout as an impressive one-day haul. A corollary benefit will be that news reports about Thompson's non-entry entry will run on June 5, when the declared candidates will meet in New Hampshire for their third debate. (Thompson won't be required to disclose his donors and the amounts they give to the Federal Election Commission until September.)

No one thinks Thompson would have set up this entity if he had not decided to run, and there were apparently no serious qualifications or hesitations expressed on the conference call yesterday. The testing-the-waters committee allows Thompson to recruit and hire staff, which he intends to do. And he now has an entity that can collect campaign cash. For nearly four months, would-be Thompson supporters have been frozen in place, unable to contribute to Thompson even as they have been hounded by other campaigns.

Former Georgia Senator Mack Mattingly, a First Day Founder who was on the conference call, says that he has chosen to back Thompson for two reasons. "First, he's a conservative. Second, he's a leader." Mattingly believes that the creation of the new committee will change the dynamics of the race. "I don't want to say anything bad about the other candidates," he says. "There'll probably be people who were supporting some other candidates who will be joining us. We'll welcome them, too." (Tennessee Representative Marsha Blackburn last week announced that she was switching her support from Mitt Romney, whom she endorsed in January, to Thompson.)

The conference call began around 2:00 pm. Ken Rietz, a top executive with Burson Marsteller and a close adviser to Thompson, welcomed the participants. Phillip Martin, who organized the phone call, spoke briefly before introducing the former Tennessee senator. Thompson thanked the supporters for their confidence in him and talked about his reasons for taking this next step toward an official run. He later answered several questions about his positions on big issues and campaign strategy. Tom Collamore, a former Reagan and George H.W. Bush administration official described by the Washington Post's Chris Cilizza as Thompson's "campaign manager in waiting," discussed the First Day Founders and their role in this pre-campaign effort. And Michael Toner, a former chairman of the FEC who served as the top lawyer on George W. Bush's 2000 campaign before performing the same job at the Republican National Committee, reviewed the laws and regulations governing the testing-the-waters committee.

The new committee allows Thompson to continue to fulfill long-standing speaking obligations, while ramping up his inevitable presidential effort. His advisers describe it as a "natural progression" on the road to an announcement, which could come as early as late June or early July. One rumor making the rounds last night anticipated an official announcement in his hometown in Tennessee in a month--on July 4th. Independence Day could be Announcement Day.

Stephen F. Hayes is senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.