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Morning Jay: The Fred Thompson Experience

6:00 AM, Feb 11, 2011 • By JAY COST
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In the Sunday Washington Post, Chris Cillizza asked an interesting question:

The Iowa caucuses are 364 days away. (But who's counting?) And yet there is only one candidate - pizza magnate Herman Cain - who has gone so far as to even form an exploratory committee to begin raising money for the Republican primary race.

What gives?

My answer is the "Fred Thompson Experience." Remember the 2008 GOP nomination battle? It started quite early. Huckabee announced in January, 2007. Romney and Giuliani announced in February. McCain announced in April.

Yet nobody really gained any traction. The Pew Poll from 2007-2008 indicates just how much that early effort was worth: Romney was mired in the low single digits nationwide through the spring and summer; Huckabee was nowhere; meanwhile, Giuliani and McCain had actually faded. The GOP electorate had not coalesced around anybody, and all of these candidates were battling each other basically to no net gain for anybody.

In rode Fred Dalton Thompson, who didn't announce his candidacy until September. How controversial! Back then, I thought the strategy of entering late was really brilliant (the problem was the execution). My argument was that Thompson was basically avoiding the drudergy of the "perpetual campaign," breaking the rules of the "media arbiters" about what presidential candidates are supposed to do, which is run around the country for two years, giving speeches to every town council and citizens group, commenting on any little item in the news, and putting their positions on the record at an endless series of media debates. Thompson avoided all of that by announcing in September -- and, in doing so, he capitalized on a lot of free publicity.

My sense at the time was that it was an intentional move to catapault him to the front of the pack:

I think Thompson might be breaking what really are fake rules...[T]he perpetual campaign is only a means to the real campaign. You play the game by the rules of the media to earn your way into the real contest. But there may be other ways to get to the real campaign. If there are, the media's rules are indeed fake. There are no consequences to breaking them. If you find another way into the real campaign, you can break them all you like.

This is what Thompson seems to be doing. In fact, I think Thompson and his campaign have assessed that breaking these media rules will actually help him get to the real campaign. They might be right.

In the end, I think they were right. Entering late turned everybody's attention to him, and gave him an excellent opportunity to jump to the front of the pack, despite a lack of effort to date. The fact that he couldn't exploit his opening doesn't mean it was never there: by the time he entered, Pew had him ahead of everybody except Giuliani. And Thompson hadn't even done any campaigning yet!

If you're a potential GOP contender for 2012, or a strategist advising him, what's the lesson from this? It's that all the work through 2007 really didn't contribute much to the final outcome. If anything, it was counter-productive. McCain had basically imploded by Labor Day (remember when he was flying coach?). Meanwhile, Romney spent so much time twisting himself into a cultural conservative knot in Iowa that he lost New Hampshire ... to McCain! That's a sure sign that the 2007-08 contest was too long: it dragged on for so much time that McCain literally had time to be the frontrunner, collapse financially and in the polls, yet come back to win (the primary) in the end.

Combine the Thompson gambit and McCain's return from the dead, and you wind up with this conclusion: most of 2007 was a waste for Republican nominees. Why should prospective candidates waste 2011, as well?

The funny thing is that this is a lesson Republicans have apparently had to re-learn. One candidate in 1967 declared earlier than everybody else, and ran around the country as the frontrunning Republican who had the support of the big state GOP governors. Then one day, he gave an interview in which he blurted out that the generals in Vietnam had "brainwashed" him. In the end, he won less than 2 percent of the vote in New Hampshire primary, from which he officially withdrew a few days prior.

The candidate's name? George Romney!

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