Why 'lazy' Fred Thompson may have a shot

Everything you've heard about his half-hearted campaigning is true. But don't count Thompson out yet, argues Fortune's David Whitford.

By David Whitford, Fortune editor-at-large

DES MOINES, IOWA (Fortune) -- Here's my anonymously sourced, second-hand Fred Thompson story that confirms the conventional wisdom. Takes place at a dinner in Washington last winter. Thompson is sitting next to a Hollywood insider who asks him, Why weren't you interested in being president of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America)? Look, Thompson says. Dick Wolf (creator of "Law and Order") pays me a lot of money to work two days a week. Why would I work for less money and work six days a week? Okay, says the insider, I get that. Then a few weeks later comes the news that Thompson wants to be president of the United States.

I wouldn't share that story if I hadn't just spent three days with Thompson on the campaign trail in Iowa, during which I gathered enough evidence with my own eyes and ears to conclude that what the anecdote suggests - Thompson is lazy, he doesn't lust for the presidency - could very well be true. I saw how he enters a room (tentatively), how he addresses a crowd (dispassionately), how he interacts with voters one-on-one (reluctantly). You hear about politicians who draw energy from the people around them. I would say of Thompson that he sucks energy out, and then lets it dissipate.

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Thompson visits an ethanol plant in Iowa.
Excerpts from Thompson's speech
On the presidency:
"...it occurred to me basically how simple this business is of running for president ... And it has to do with what's good for America ... But there's something that you can judge ... and that is deep in your heart, what do you think is good for your country...?"
On the role of government:
"The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are not outmoded documents ... They reminds us that our rights come from God, not from any government. It reminds us that we should not have too much power in any too few hands."
On the judiciary:
"It's important to have judges on the Supreme Court of the United States who will apply the Constitution and the law and not make it up as they go along. Courts and judges are supposed to decide cases, not causes."
On national security:
"Radical Islamic fundamentalism has declared war on us ... We must signal to the world, friend and foe alike, that we will do whatever is necessary to protect this country and prevail on whatever front we face."
On nuclear power:
"I've always been an advocate of nuclear power ... I think we're used to it in Tennessee ... We're also mindful of some of the regulatory issues involved and how important it is to keep safety paramount while not having a regulatory maze so impassible that nobody can get through it in a cost-effective manner and build a plant, and that's kind of what's happened now."
On taxes:
"I don't think any kind of tax right now ought to be considered ... That seems to be the first place we look to and it ought it ought to be the last place..."
On fiscal policy:
"Tax cuts work. This administration inherited an economy going into recession. You had the technology bubble burst on Wall Street, you had September 11. And because of the fiscal policies that were placed into effect at that time, we've had 22 successive quarters of growth in this country. It's worked."
On social security:
We are spending money that we don't have. We are borrowing against future generations and those yet to be born ... and we need to tell the politicians in Washington that we are better than that and we're going to blow the whistle on that as soon as we get elected president of the United States."

I was present at the dimly lit supper club in Marshalltown, Iowa, on Monday, October 1, when Thompson, after finishing his remarks, made an unbelievably awkward transition to the question-and-answer period. "First of all," he pleaded, "can I have a round of applause?" The New York Times wrote about it on Thursday. Two days later it was on "Saturday Night Live".

You've heard that he rambles, he mangles his words, he's skimpy on details; that he gets stuff wrong and says "I don't know" a lot; that despite being at least 6-foot-5 and blessed with a booming Southern drawl, he doesn't play nearly as impressively in person as he does on TV. All true. Fred Thompson, in the race officially for all of 35 days as this story is being published, is still finding his legs. Certainly his performance in the Dearborn, Michigan, Republican debate was underwhelming - even if he was able to identify the Prime Minister of Canada.

But to conclude therefore that Thompson won't be a factor in the Republican primary race would be a foolish - maybe even grave - mistake. Thompson should be taken "very seriously," says veteran Democratic consultant Tad Devine. "I think the biggest thing he has going for him is there is tremendous disenchantment with the Republican field. You've got Romney who appears to be doing well in some of the early states but appears to be falling behind nationally. You've got Giuliani who enjoys some national standing but has tremendous problems with the base of the Republican party. You've got huge, deep disenchantment with the direction of the country under the president and you've got gigantic issues like the war in Iraq and a deteriorating economy on the front burner. When you create that kind of political brew, somebody like a Thompson can step into it and basically argue...that he can do the thing which they most desperately want done, which is to win the election."

Here's the bet the Thompson camp is making: That it all comes down to two issues, national security and electability. "Who can protect the country? That's A," says senior Thompson advisor Rich Galen, former executive director of GOPAC, the powerful political action committee behind the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. He's on the sidewalk outside the Book Cellar in Iowa Falls (Thompson is inside), twiddling on his Blackberry. "And B," he continues, Who can beat Hillary? I think that ticks you down to Thompson and Giuliani. And once you pass those two tests, then, Who do I feel most comfortable with amongst the people who pass the tests? I think amongst Republicans it's going to be Fred Thompson. If I'm wrong, we'll say good-bye on February 6" - the day after Super Tuesday, when as many as 20 states will hold primaries - "and we'll go back and do other things."

Just for the sake of argument, let's cede Galen's point about the primacy of national security; it's hardly a stretch and he's by no means the only one saying it. And we'll give him this one, too, a modern political truth that is practically self-evident: "Elections are for most people an emotional endeavor, not an intellectual one," says Galen. "They generally will vote for somebody that they feel comfortable with."

With that in mind, let's take a closer look at Thompson's performance on the stump. He's standing up there at the front of the room next to his second wife, Jeri (a former Republican operative; she's a young 41, he's an old 65). Not ramrod straight but with a little roll to his shoulders that connects him subtly to his listeners but without surrendering his status as the tallest man in the room. Khaki pants and a web belt, cuffs that splash on his shoe-tops. A very blue shirt like the blue in his eyes, two buttons unbuttoned, chest hair peeking out. "Let's do something good for America," he begins, "what do you think?" That gets some claps.

Then comes a folksy anecdote about "driving around Iowa today, looking at that beautiful countryside," and how "it occurred to me basically how simple this business is of running for president. How people talk about it's so hard, it's so complex, so many issues and all that. It's really pretty simple. And it has to do with what's good for America." People are nodding now. Two keys in the coming election, he says: One is "to adhere to the principles we have always believed in as a nation;" two is "to nominate somebody who is a commonsense conservative who can win in November, and I submit to you I am that man."

More claps. He talks about faith, family and patriotism. About "how important it is to have judges on the Supreme Court of the United States who will apply the Constitution and the law and not make it up as they go along." About "strong national defense, lower taxes, less regulation, appreciation for the sanctity of human life, free competition among free Americans, trade with other nations - all those things that led to unprecedented prosperity for us and prosperity for any other country that ever chose the same path."

The Republican canon, chapter and verse. And all the while he's exuding a kind of weary paternalism that plays surprisingly well, and not just among Iowa caucus-goers. He's like a dad, a good dad - dependable, unflappable, familiar. A little detached, maybe, a little subdued, and there's that slight undercurrent of irritation he can't seem to shake. But that's to be expected of a man who knows what duty is, what responsibilities are. His indifference, oddly, is part of his charm.

Thompson is running second behind Romney in the latest Iowa poll - and well behind Giuliani in most national polls. His true test may come after the Iowa caucuses. "All he's got to do, really," says Devine, "is if he can do well enough in Iowa and New Hampshire to be in the mix, then he's got to go and win South Carolina. And then he's going to have a wave and he's going to have to ride it." That wave may take him quite far.  Top of page