Fred Thompson will take the first step towards declaring himself a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, according to Ryan Sager at the New York Sun. After reportedly meeting with campaign-finance advisors, Thompson will launch a presidential pre-exploratory committee, in a move that will delight Republicans and satirists in equal measure:
Speculation over whether Fred Thompson is serious about running for president just went toes-up. Mr. Thompson's not-yet-a campaign has confirmed: He's dipping his toes in.
Specifically, a Thompson adviser told The New York Sun yesterday, he will announce the formation of a presidential "testing-the-waters" committee early next week — possibly as early as Sunday.
A "testing the waters" committee is a step before the more familiar presidential exploratory committee. It allows the former Tennessee senator to raise money and hire staff. But it also prevents him from doing a number of other things: advertising his candidacy, referring to himself as a real candidate (presumably just in public, he can say whatever he likes in front of the bathroom mirror), raising money that could be transferred to another candidate, or raising money to get on the ballot.
This reminds me of corporate processes for meeting preparation. At two companies for which I worked in management, efficiency training implemented a set of requirements for meetings which eventually forced "pre-meetings" in order to set the agenda for the real conferences. Eventually people tired of these requirements and went back to actually doing work. A "testing the waters" committee seems like an absurd extension of the same process, especially since an exploratory committee doesn't commit a potential candidate to much of anything, at least on paper.
I'm looking forward to a Thompson candidacy. As Sager notes, it will shake up the field and finally clarify the roster. Thompson began hinting that he would run in March, and the polling has clearly shown that he has a ready-made constituency, based primarily on those who feel that the current crop of candidates does not reflect the conservative nature of the party.
Unlike Sager, though, I believe that Thompson has made several serious moves towards his candidacy -- just nothing official. He has managed to make himself very relevant by delivering much-anticipated speeches to various Republican groups. Thompson has also written a series of essays, erudite and sensational, on various hot issues as well as explaining and expanding on his federalist beliefs. It's almost a philosopher's campaign for the White House, an approach that may not have a parallel since Woodrow Wilson.
Rumor has Fred entering the race officially over the Fourth of July holiday. Meanwhile, he's collecting a staff and making plans while still remaining able to use the media to his advantage. That's the real story behind the dipped-toes approach, and it's not Fred's fault that the mechanism exists. Like this primary season, though, it seems like election laws keep extending the degrees in which a candidate is or is not running for office, and the additional stages are bordering on the comical.
UPDATE: The Washington Post has caught up to the story now:
Thompson, who has been fueling speculation of a Republican presidential bid by traveling the country and making speeches, urged a group of donors in a conference call Tuesday to begin raising $46,000 from 10 couples each, starting on June 4, according to two participants in the call. Once the money begins flowing, Thompson will begin to hire a campaign staff and set up his headquarters in Washington and Nashville, his advisers said.
In addition, the nascent campaign is planning to launch a website in the next 10 days, according to one person familiar with campaign planning. Thompson will give a speech in Virginia this weekend and is scheduled to appear on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno next month.
The papers Thompson intends to file on Friday with the Federal Elections Committee will allow the former Tennessee senator to "test the waters" by raising money that could be used once he declares officially, several sources said. The committee will be called "Friends of Fred Thompson."
The Post is more cautious about the July 4th launch date. Michael Shear reports that those plans are "in flux" and could change. I'm not sure why, unless organizationally he thinks he won't be ready for it. It would make a great backdrop for a presidential announcement, and would almost certainly wind up being the political story of the entire holiday.
Also, just to clarify, I'm not criticizing Fred for using the toe-dip committee procedure to keep all his options open. I'm criticizing the fact that the option exists at all. I'd prefer to see just the exploratory committee and the actual campaign, not some pre-exploratory stage where nothing changes at all. It's a reflection of the absurdity of campaign finance reform, as practiced in recent years.