In early March, only a handful of Fred Thompson's good friends knew that he was even thinking about a bid for president. Three months later, according to several polls, Thompson is in second place nationally, trailing frontrunner Rudy Giuliani. He spends his days raising money and assembling an increasingly sophisticated campaign operation. His advisers hold daily conference calls to discuss issues and to craft a schedule that includes visits to states with early caucuses and primaries. Rival campaigns are adjusting their strategies to account for his inevitable entry into the race.
Ask people closest to Thompson how this happened and they often give you the same story: The former senator was simply minding his business when out of nowhere there arose a powerful Draft Fred movement, the likes of which have rarely been seen in American politics. "The groundswell for Fred is the closest thing to a real, genuine draft that I've seen in my 40 years of politics," Senator Lamar Alexander said recently in Chattanooga.
In truth, we hear some variation of this almost every four years. Average Americans who have never before shown much interest in politics rise up and demand that so-and-so provide the country the leadership it's been lacking. They form a movement. The reluctant noncandidate says he is surprised and flattered. He promises to give it serious consideration, not because he wants to, of course--he couldn't be happier in his private life, really--but because he owes it to the people.
Think Wes Clark, June 2003: "I'm amazed at the draft movement. It started without any knowledge on my behalf. . . . I think it's more a testimony to the crying need in this country and what people see as a need for leadership . . . than it is, frankly, a reflection on me." On that last point, at least, Clark was right.
The Draft Clark movement did lead to a campaign--which went nowhere. And this is worth bearing in mind as a worst-case scenario for Thompson. The Thompson effort feels different, though. It does have more of a real bottom-up, voter-driven aspect. But that doesn't mean Thompson and his small team--three or four close advisers--sat by passively and waited for a groundswell.
On November 29, 2006, Tennessee senator Bill Frist said that he would not be running for president. The same day, the Wall Street Journal noted that the announcement "leaves a Republican void in the South, and underscores the absence of any major center-to-right Southern figure in the Republican Party's presidential field thus far."
Others saw the same void. Thompson fielded calls from several friends and former colleagues in the following days. Spencer Abraham, who had resigned as George W. Bush's secretary of energy shortly after the 2004 election, knew Thompson from their days in the Senate. He urged his old friend to consider running. Tennessee congressman Zach Wamp called to say much the same thing. In public, there was very little discussion of a possible Thompson candidacy, though he was mentioned as a possible replacement for U.N. ambassador John Bolton.
Thompson's wife Jeri, a savvy Republican strategist with Capitol Hill experience, asked Mark Corallo, an old friend and public relations guru, to see what he might do to raise her husband's profile in Washington. Thompson had not altogether retired from politics when he left the Senate in January 2003: He was serving as chairman of the State Department's International Security Advisory Board. He was a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a member of the U.S.-China Economic Security Review Commission, and a commentator for ABC Radio.
Corallo had left his job as spokesman at the Justice Department to open a media consulting firm and agreed to take on the low-intensity work as a favor and without pay. He quietly began to highlight Thompson's activities, in particular calling attention to Thompson's radio work. When the provocative radio commentaries were published on National Review's popular website beginning in January 2007, other conservative websites began to link to them with some regularity--viral marketing, as they say in the online world, and arguably the informal beginning of Thompson's campaign.
In early March, when Thompson acknowledged on Fox News Sunday that he was seriously considering a presidential run, support for a potential bid exploded. Thompson and his friends were flooded with phone calls from would-be supporters eager to start raising money. Public officials began to endorse Thompson without any promise that he would become a candidate--a risk in the trade-and-barter world of politics.