March 10, 2007

Where Have You Gone, Fred Dalton Thompson?

The runors have flown for weeks that Hollywood celebrity and two-term Senator Fred Dalton Thompson might decide to run for President -- not on The West Wing but in the Republican primary. Yesterday, The Hill reported that the rumors may have more substance than first thought:

Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) is contacting powerbrokers in the Republican Party to build support for a 2008 presidential campaign by his one-time protégé, former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.).

Baker, who Wednesday made a visit to the Senate, was asked by several Republicans about his involvement on Thompson’s behalf.

“He said, ‘I am making a few calls and I think it’s a great idea,’” said one Senate Republican who heard Baker discuss his efforts to advance Thompson’s prospects.

One Republican who discussed a possible bid with Thompson described his interest and Baker’s queries as “a friendly exploration.”

Baker is a close friend and mentor to Thompson. Thompson broke into national politics in a big way in 1973 when Baker named him chief Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee. Thompson’s work helped to uncover the scandal that forced the resignation of President Nixon. Republicans believe Baker is coordinating efforts with Thompson, and view Baker’s emerging role as a sign that Thompson is taking steps toward launching a campaign.

Thompson has quite a history, both in and out of politics. He has a reputation as a reformer, due both to the nature of his involvement in Watergate and his efforts to topple a corrupt Tennessee governor. In the former, as The Hill notes, he worked as a counsel for the Republicans but helped Howard Baker make the final push that got Richard Nixon to resign. In the latter, Thompson represented Marie Ragghianti in a case that exposed Tennessee governor Ray Blanton's sale of pardons while in office. Blanton never got charged in that case but got convicted later for his sale of liquor licenses, but the conviction got overturned on appeal. (Blanton proclaimed his innocence of corruption until his death in 1996.)

The Blanton case launched his acting career. The producers of Marie, starring Sissy Spacek as Ragghianti, decided to use Thompson rather than an actor to play himself. After receiving good notices, he continued to land substantial roles, usually as a decisive, commanding presence in one manner or another. He returned to politics by winning Al Gore's seat in the Senate in a special election, garnering the most votes any Tennesseean ever received for statewide office -- and then he beat that record in his re-election in 1996. He wound up serving eight years in the Senate, retiring in 2003 to return to acting.

Now he's being pushed as a challenger to the three frontrunners of the GOP primary -- Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. With the kind of money that the three have raised and spent already, and with a long tail of less-successful primary combatants in their train, one might think that Thomspon would be better off signing on for another four seasons of Law and Order. However, Thompson may have an opening that others do not.

First, Thompson remains very popular with conservatives. In his short tenure in the Senate, he pushed for conservative goals while maintaining respect from all quarters. He never took himself so seriously that he created a target for his political opponents, but he worked hard to advance conservatism in the Senate. Thompson did not shy away from pointing out the follies of his allies when needed, either. His work as a reformer in Washington and Tennessee gives him a white-knight quality that the Republicans, battered by scandals over the last couple of years, could use.

In comparison to the three candidates at the top, Thompson appears much more reliably conservative, and more above the political fray. He doesn't have the personal baggage of Giuliani (and Newt Gingrich), and he doesn't have the flip-flops of Mitt Romney. Thompson supported John McCain in 2000 and is reluctant to oppose his friend in 2008, but conservatives have made clear after the McCain-Feingold disaster and the McCain-Kennedy immigration disaster to come that they will not support him -- and McCain made clear in his rejection of CPAC that he's not interested in conservatives, either. Thompson has an opening to exploit, and it could be a wide opening at that.

Thompson seems to be a candidate who can generate considerable enthusiasm across the board for Republicans, from the social conservatives to the Northeastern Rockefeller-style voters. If he enters the race, he could ascend quickly to the top, especially with Howard Baker behind him.

UPDATE: Thompson's voting record is summarized here. Looks solidly conservative, although there is an early vote (1997) for the first McCain-Feingold efforts at campaign reform. He also voted for the final version in 2002, probably due to his allegiance to McCain and his reformist impulses. He'll have to explain that one.


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