AFTER A TWENTY-FIVE minute speech and taking three questions from voters at the Waterloo Arts Center in Waterloo, Iowa, Fred Thompson decided to entertain one more. At first, this seemed like a mistake.
A woman with a mullet stood, and in a husky voice, asked him whether it wasn't time for another tea party. Thompson seemed both confused and amused. But she was angry and she was just getting started. Before she was finished there would be a couple references to "the Arabs" causing the United States so many problems, an invocation of the Queen of England, a lengthy disquisition on oil, some talk of taxes, and a second reference to another tea party.
Thompson laughed. "If you put all that oil into the water the environmentalists are going to be on your case," he replied. The room erupted with laughter.
It was the kind of response that one might have expected from a candidate who has been doing these kinds of town hall meetings for a year. Thompson, of course, has not. And there were times during his prepared remarks when he had to pause to look at his notes or gather his thoughts. Thompson's performance wasn't polished, but it was strong. Most important to the crowd of nearly 200 gathered to see him, the message was unmistakably conservative.
Although he avoided mentioning his opponents by name, Thompson drew a sharp contrast with Mike Huckabee on national security issues, suggesting that the Iowa frontrunner is too naïve to be president, and he took a subtle shot at Huckabee's new Christmas ad.
One Iowan asked: "What about habeas corpus?" Thompson explained that terrorists captured elsewhere are not entitled to the protections provided in the U.S. Constitution. Then he turned his attention to Huckabee.
"I'm not here to run anybody down tonight," he said. "I'm in the Christmas spirit. Sort of. But when I hear one of the fellows who's running for the Republican nomination say that we need to shut down Guantanamo and bring those prisoners over here. I don't know if he realizes it or not, but when they touch American soil they're going to get rights they don't ordinarily have."
He continued: "The notion that we're going to ingratiate ourselves if we do that, to our enemies or foreign governments--I wonder if he understands how the world really operates." Thompson's tone is one of incredulousness, and, after a short pause, he finishes the thought. "I don't wonder, either. I think I have a pretty good idea."
Thompson came to Waterloo on this first full day of his final 17-day push in Iowa. At the very least, Thompson's long-shot bid needs a strong third place finish here, something provides distance between himself and the fourth place finisher. His strategy is not complicated. As Huckabee and Mitt Romney challenge each other's conservative credentials, Thompson intends to position himself as a strong and "consistent" conservative leader.
At least one longtime observer of the Iowa caucuses is not writing him off. David Yepsen, columnist with the Des Moines Register, wrote about Thompson's chances yesterday.
A]fter a sluggish start, Thompson has sensed an opening in Iowa, and he's moving decisively to exploit it. The opening arises from a combination of Romney's changes of position on social issues and Huckabee's stumbles on foreign-policy questions and immigration.
After his winning performance in the Des Moines Register's debate, Thompson has embarked on a lengthy bus tour of the state. During these final days, his campaign says he'll hold events in 50 communities and will visit 54 of the 99 counties.
On Monday, he picked up the surprise endorsement of Congressman Steve King. Of all the endorsements flying around these days, that one could move the most numbers. It sends a powerful signal from one of Iowa's most conservative leaders to others on the right around the state: We've now got a horse we can ride.
Thompson, whose presentation here included a couple of friendly pokes at the news media and the pundit class, likes the speculation. And after mentioning the Yepsen column and the King endorsement in his remarks, finishes the metaphor.
"Saddle me up."
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD and author, most recently, of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President.