Thompson Enters, Stage Right

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J. Emilio Flores / Getty

Fred Thompson

Tonight, as every other G.O.P. candidate for President appears on a stage in Manchester, N.H., for a debate on Fox News, Fred Dalton Thompson — actor, ex-Senator and irrepressible political flirt — will be 3,000 miles away, sitting next to Jay Leno and finally announcing his commitment to audition for the role of a lifetime: commander in chief.

That Thompson would choose a Hollywood venue to declare his candidacy makes sense. After all, to the extent that voters recognize Thompson, 65, it's as Arthur Branch, the gruff-but-charming District Attorney in the long-running NBC series Law & Order. Or as Joshua Painter, the gruff-but-charming rear admiral in The Hunt for Red October. (Dramatic range is not his calling card.)

Political junkies know that Thompson was a twice-elected Senator from Tennessee; that he served as G.O.P. counsel during the Watergate hearings in 1973; and that he had a successful career as a lawyer-lobbyist in Washington for years in between. But rather than present himself as just another politician running for President, Thompson will try to turn his fame into a bankable asset. Hence the decision not just to skip the New Hampshire debate in favor of The Tonight Show, but to take the audacious step of airing a campaign ad on Fox News during the debate he will have so conspicuously skipped. "There is no question that Senator Thompson's celebrity affords us some communications opportunities that aren't necessarily available to every candidate," says Todd Harris, the nascent Thompson campaign's communications director. "We intend to exploit those."

Not many Republican would-be Presidents would risk offending Fox News, but the Thompson campaign believes their candidate's electoral fate hinges on more than just short-term approval from G.O.P. activists. After a summer of upheaval, complete with unflattering headlines about a campaign in disarray before it was even an official campaign, Team Thompson has settled on selling G.O.P. voters that their man is both conservative enough to lock down the Republican base and appealing enough to win a general election. "Republican primary voters are looking for two things," says Harris. "They want a candidate who shares their values — and there is no question that Senator Thompson, among the top-tier Republicans, is closest to our base in terms of mainstream conservative values. They also want someone who can win in 2008."

This was supposed to be the year when only those candidates who launched their campaigns early, and quickly demonstrated their ability to raise tens of millions of dollars, would have any hope of securing their party's nominations. But by delaying his formal entry into the race for so long, Thompson arrives at an advantageous moment. Republicans remain profoundly dissatisfied with their choices in the 2008 primary. Thompson's candidacy is built around the premise that, like guests at a lousy cocktail party, G.O.P. voters will simply flock to him once he makes his roguish entrance into the room. (Thompson is already second to Giuliani in most national polls of G.O.P. contenders.) This may be brilliant strategy, or it may be utter folly. We'll likely know, one way or another, by the end of September.

Thompson's fundraising as a non-candidate was lackluster. And his overall numbers for the third quarter of 2007 aren't likely to scare the Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama cash-raising juggernauts. But if he's really captured the attention of Republicans there should be a substantial increase in his campaign coffers in the days and weeks to come. "If the money doesn't come in after [the publicity surrounding his launch], it'll be over before it really begins," says a Republican operative who supports Thompson.

At the very least, today's scheduled rollout suggests a level of organizational competence that has eluded Thompson for much of the summer. At midnight, as Tuesday turned to Wednesday, Thompson's campaign released the transcript of the ad it will run on Fox News during the commercial breaks in tonight's G.O.P. presidential debate (the idea being to distract attention from the debate itself and, more importantly, to dominate coverage on Thursday's morning shows.) The ad's message is simple and broad: "On the next President's watch," Thompson says, "Our country will make decisions that will affect our lives and our families far into the future. We can't allow ourselves to become a weaker, less prosperous and more divided nation. Today, as before, the fate of millions across the world depends on the unity and resolve of the American people. I talk about this on Fred08.com, I invite you to take a look and join us." Then an announcer makes clear what has been unspoken for the past three months: "Fred Thompson, Republican for President."

Later Wednesday, Thompson hits The Tonight Show, where he'll be treated far more deferentially by Jay Leno than he would have been by his debating fellow Republicans — who'd like to stop bloodying each other and start bloodying him. Finally, as Wednesday turns to Thursday, the campaign will post a video on Fred08.com in which Thompson, speaking directly to the camera, "officially" announces his candidacy. Combined with the Leno appearance, the video is designed — once again — to feed the morning shows, with the hope that Thompson will dominate two straight campaign news cycles.

As political orchestration goes, the Thompson roll out is impressive. But it doesn't solve Thompson's most elemental problem — his renowned lack of enthusiasm for the act of campaigning itself. A few weeks ago, after a foray into Iowa that included a visit to the famous State Fair, Thompson was scheduled to hold a rally for supporters at the Des Moines airport. More than 50 people showed up for the event, some of them having driven for as long as eight hours, and having waited several more, just to meet him. Thompson was nearly an hour late, and then spoke for less than 90 seconds. In other words, he campaigned in person like he was on TV.