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.
On April 7, Carl Bearden, the speaker pro tem of the Missouri House of Representatives, sent an email to colleagues expressing his support for Thompson and encouraging them to do the same. In time, 60 of the 92 Republicans in the Missouri House signed a petition backing a Thompson run. The lawmakers did so despite the fact that two of the state's leading Republicans, Governor Matt Blunt and Missouri House speaker Rod Jetton, had endorsed Mitt Romney. (So confident is Bearden that he offered some good-natured smack-talk to Blunt and Jetton. "I told them to enjoy it while it lasts, because when Fred gets in, it'll be over.")
In Texas, Jerry Patterson, the colorful commissioner of the General Land Office (a statewide elected office that is more powerful than it sounds), began to circulate a petition encouraging Thompson to run. By late April, he had gotten the signatures of 58 Texas Republican lawmakers. "No other presidential hopeful from either party is close," reported the Houston Chronicle. According to Patterson, that number now stands at 67, and includes 59 of the 81 Republicans in the Texas House.
Patterson had no previous ties to Thompson. "I've never seen any of his movies and I'd never seen his TV show," he says. "The things that others say are his weaknesses, I see as strengths. He's not enamored of elected office. He's not just running to be president."
As the spring rolled on, Thompson's media appearances increased, and so did his poll numbers. He came in second in a Los Angeles Times national poll in mid-April and tied for second in a Rasmussen poll later that month. On May 12, Thompson won the Wisconsin Republican party straw poll with 31 percent of the vote (to 27 percent for former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson). Six days later, he won a straw poll of Republican delegates to the Georgia Republican convention with 44 percent of the votes cast. He has the support of more than 30 state legislators in that state, too.
Straw polls are just that--straw polls. And signing a petition to encourage a run is not quite the same thing as an endorsement. Still, by late spring it was clear that there was something to the Thompson boomlet.
Behind the scenes too, the activity was picking up. Thompson's top advisers gathered more frequently for planning meetings around the banquet-sized dining room table at his home in McLean, Virginia. On Saturday, May 12, as Thompson won the Wisconsin GOP poll, he met there with two men he does not know well but who will nevertheless play a major role in his bid to become president. David McIntosh, a former congressman from Indiana, and Lawrence Lindsey, President Bush's top economic adviser in his first term, came expecting to discuss tax reform, or social issues, or perhaps the long-term stability of Medicare. They would get to that, eventually.
First, Thompson wanted to talk about growing up in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, and the many experiences that have shaped his conservatism. Thompson did the same thing when I interviewed him in March, but that made more sense. He was thinking of running for president, and I was writing a profile. His background--in small town America, in the South, in the law, in politics--is something that might convince potential Thompson supporters that (despite years as a TV and movie star) he is just like them. But Thompson evidently believes his experiences so inform his views that his policy advisers have to understand that background in order to understand him.
In that meeting and in two long sessions that followed, the three men discussed a broad set of issues, ranging from general principles of governance (federalism, the Constitution, political philosophy) to topics likely to be at the center of debate in the Republican primary (abortion, Second Amendment rights, immigration, and spending).
Thompson made clear that he intends to campaign on "big issues"--entitlement reform at home and the imperative of an America that shapes world affairs rather than reacts to them. He indicated a willingness to criticize his own party's failings, particularly on government spending. and a desire to return Republicans to their limited-government moorings. "He recognizes that a 'first principles' campaign is what the American people want," says McIntosh.
Thompson has been talking foreign policy with Richard Allen, Ronald Reagan's first national security adviser, who has agreed to serve as an adviser. He has also met with former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, who has spent time with other GOP candidates as well and remains uncommitted.
McIntosh, who in 1982 helped start the Federalist Society, the well-known national organization for conservative lawyers and students, is widely regarded as a serious conservative thinker and someone who is in touch with the ideas that animate movement conservatives. McIntosh says Thompson is a conservative's conservative. "When I first talked to Fred, I thought either he's a better actor than anyone I've ever met, or this is really him. Having spent more time, I know he's a real conservative."
With the formation of his "testing the waters" committee, Thompson, meanwhile, has continued his noncampaign campaign. In a late May conference call with the candidate, some 80 Thompson supporters agreed to raise $46,000 each by June 4, the day the committee would begin accepting donations. Although several news organizations--including THE WEEKLY STANDARD--reported that Thompson was expected to release the results of that effort, the committee has not yet provided them. Advisers to other Republican campaigns have speculated that this means the fundraising was not as successful as predicted.
Thompson advisers dismiss claims that there are any problems with fundraising. They point to other indications that the overall effort is going strong. Republican media strategist Mary Matalin signed on to advise the Thompson effort, and George P. Bush, the son of Jeb Bush and nephew of the president, endorsed him. California Republican consultant Ken Khachigian, a veteran of the Reagan machine, is on board.
Thompson last week also picked up the endorsement of the third-ranking Republican in the House, Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida. Putnam is the highest-ranking House Republican to endorse a candidate. "I see in him an ability to create an excitement in our grassroots that none of the other candidates have been able to do thus far," Putnam said in a phone interview.
The 33-year-old Putnam is widely regarded as one of the rising stars among conservatives in the House. He was first elected in 2000, the first cycle he was old enough to run. Six years later, his colleagues chose Putnam as chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, making him the fourth-ranking member. He has served as chairman of the House Republican Conference since the beginning of the current session.
As important to the Thompson campaign as Putnam's congressional chops are his extensive ties among Florida Republicans--he served for four years in the state legislature before being elected to Congress. Putnam says the phone lines in his campaign office have been "flooded" since his endorsement of Thompson was first reported. He has heard from voters as well as lawmakers. "All the worker bees have been calling in to ask what they can do to help," he says. "And several of my former colleagues have been shooting me emails asking how they can sign up."
Florida could play a major role in the selection of the Republican nominee with its early primary. And because the primary date was moved up just recently, Thompson's late entry matters less than it does in Iowa and New Hampshire, where his rivals have been building organizations for months or years.
Thompson will be in London for a speech on June 19. His schedule later this month includes speeches to Republicans in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He does not currently have plans to travel to Iowa and has not decided whether to participate in the Iowa GOP straw poll on August 11. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain announced last week that they would bypass the straw poll.
How Thompson decides to handle Iowa is one of many unanswered tactical questions his campaign will have to confront. But one thing is clear in his zero-to-sixty presidential run: He is already a serious contender for the nomination. And Thompson himself points out something that is often overlooked about his candidacy.
"You know," he says, "I haven't spent a dime yet."
Stephen F. Hayes, a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President, which will be published next month by HarperCollins.