Des Moines, Iowa
FORMER TENNESSEE SENATOR Fred Thompson has decided to take his campaign and virtually all of its resources to Iowa in an all-or-nothing attempt to register a strong showing in the caucuses here on January 3. "We're getting ready to make this not only our second home, but our first home," he told a small gathering of supporters at the Polk County Convention Center on Friday night. Thompson and his wife Jeri chatted with the crowd before making their way through the exhibits at the Iowa Farm Bureau's annual meeting in downtown Des Moines.
Beginning Monday, December 17, Thompson will launch a bus tour that will take him throughout the state. From the beginning of that trip through caucus night, Thompson will essentially live in Iowa, taking only a one-day trip out of the state to celebrate Christmas at his home in Virginia.
"Iowa is critical to our campaign, and it may in fact be everything to our campaign," says one Thompson official. "If we don't do what we need to do in Iowa, it will be tough to compete effectively down the road."
Thompson has said publicly that he needs to finish in the top three in Iowa. Campaign officials say that a strong third place finish--presumably behind new frontrunner Mike Huckabee and former frontrunner Mitt Romney--would likely give them enough momentum to survive New Hampshire and compete in South Carolina and beyond. A second place finish would be a victory. "Just when the interest is there the greatest, is when we'll be here the most."
A Newsweek poll released Friday shows Huckabee shooting to a commanding lead in Iowa. Thirty-nine percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers say they support Huckabee, with 17 percent for Romney and 10 percent for Thompson. Rudy Giuliani follows with nine percent and John McCain comes in at six percent.
Neither McCain nor Giuliani appears to be making a major effort in Iowa, though there are persistent reports that Giuliani is doing whatever under-the-radar things he can--like mail--to keep his name in circulation without looking like he's trying too hard. That leaves Thompson alone to compete with Romney and Huckabee, two candidates without national security experience, in Iowa.
Thompson will almost certainly spend most of his time here talking about the War on Terror and other national security matters. He will tout his service on the Senate Intelligence Committee and his hand in creating the Department of Homeland Security.
Thompson gave a preview of the coming campaign in response to two questions about Huckabee today. At a stop in Columbus, Ohio, Thompson criticized Huckabee after the former Arkansas governor seemed unaware of the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran when he was asked about it earlier this week. "Not only is Iran the major long-term threat to our country, the nuclear program is the most important part of the Iran consideration. For a presidential candidate not to know that and not to keep up with that is very surprising," Thompson said, according to a report by CBS News.
"These are the kinds of things I've been talking about all of my life. Now, if the American people have other priorities, if they want someone who smiles a lot more than I do, or someone who is a better quipster than I am, who has no experience in these areas, that's for the American people to decide."
Then tonight, I asked Thompson whether we should interpret those comments as a claim that Huckabee is not qualified to serve as commander-in-chief. Thompson reiterated his concerns about Huckabee on Iran and took a shot at Huckabee's announcement earlier this week that he favors shutting down the prison at Guantanamo Bay. "All I'm saying is that national security and foreign affairs is the most important thing facing this country," said Thompson. "It affects our security and the security of our children. And who has nuclear capability is the most important part of the most important issue. I think it's best if someone has experience in that regard. I've spent a lot of time--I served on the Intelligence Committee in the United States Senate, I've traveled around and met with foreign leaders. I chaired a committee that involved oversight of nuclear proliferation issues and things of that nature. So I think it's surprising that someone that would aspire to be president takes the position like closing Guantanamo, for example, is a good thing. And does not keep up with what's going on in Iran."
Thompson was also asked about Mitt Romney. "He has been on both sides of a lot of issues in terms of the campaign."
Stephen F. Hayes, a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author, most recently, of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President.