Thompson's (Too) Late Arrival

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Kevin Sanders / AP

Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson greets voters in Ames, Iowa, Nov. 21, 2007

Fred Thompson is finally getting the hang of running for President. In the last few weeks, the former actor and Senator from Tennessee has sharpened his message, picked up the pace of his campaign, leveled some clean shots at his opponents, cut two effective television ads, received one very big endorsement and issued some of the most substantial policy proposals of any of the Republican contenders.

But it may be too late.

The rationale behind Thompson's candidacy was simple, and sound: in a G.O.P. primary that glaringly lacked a conservative who was both true and viable, Thompson would enter late and immediately be embraced by all those Republicans who had been unhappy with their options. Then he would roll to the nomination.

It hasn't turned out as planned, primarily, say Republicans both inside and outside the Thompson operation, because he waited too long to get in the race — and then, once he did get in, ambled through his first month as an official candidate as if his heart wasn't in it. The result: In national polls that once had Thompson running even or better with front-runner Rudy Giuliani, Thompson now trails by double digits. More troubling for Thompson is the emergence of Mike Huckabee, the former Baptist minister and Arkansas governor who is now statistically tied for first with Mitt Romney in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll of likely Iowa G.O.P. caucus voters. Huckabee's sudden surge of support among conservatives threatens to shred the rationale behind Thompson's candidacy.

For that reason, the Thompson campaign has been on the attack lately on just about every topic that might resonate with conservatives, going after, among other things, "Huckabee's liberal immigration record," as one Thompson spokesman put it, and the fact that Huckabee raised taxes and increased spending as governor. Thompson has even raised questions about Huckabee's multiple run-ins with the Arkansas Ethics Commission during his 10-year stint as governor over issues ranging from how he paid himself with campaign cash in the early 1990s to his claim in 1998 that some $70,000 in furniture donated to the governor's mansion actually belonged to him and his wife. (Most of the 14 ethics complaints against Huckabee were small-bore, but he did receive five admonitions from the Commission and $1,000 in fines).

Thompson's numbers in Iowa have actually inched up since he started broadcasting ads in the state; in the ABC/Washington Post Iowa poll, he ranks third with 16%, slightly ahead of Giuliani. And the campaign is hoping for a similar bump in South Carolina, the state Thompson almost certainly has to win to have any chance of becoming the nominee. "This thing is wide open, everyone's numbers are soft," says one Thompson aide optimistically. But then the aide ads, "I do think this Huckabee thing is real. If Huckabee wins Iowa, that changes things dramatically."

The pity for his aides and supporters is that Thompson has of late been living up to at least some of the expectations that surrounded his potential candidacy through the spring and summer. Surprising many skeptics, he has issued substantive policy proposals on reforming Social Security, dealing with immigration and enlarging the U.S. military. The proposals themselves have been uneven; as my colleague Mark Thompson has written, Senator Thompson's plans to expand the size of the Army to 775,000 troops and to mandate that the Pentagon's budget be set at 4.6% of GDP are both problematic. But his proposal to create add-on savings accounts to Social Security and to reduce the program's cost by changing how initial benefits are calculated could be the foundation for a bipartisan compromise. At the very least, Thompson's policy proposals prove that he's not running just on his acting skills and regional appeal.

Thompson also received the coveted endorsement of the National Right to Life Committee, which gave his flagging campaign a welcome shot of adrenaline and rekindled the debate about who among the Republicans is a true conservative. It also reinforced what has become one of the truisms of the G.O.P. race this cycle — that the social conservative movement has splintered to the point where it may no longer be a movement at all. The ABC/Washington Post Iowa poll showing Huckabee's surge into a first-place tie with Romney was taken after Thompson received the NRLC endorsement. Thompson's improvement has cheered up his supporters and advisers, but some wonder whether it has come too late to carry him deep into the primaries. "I wish it were August," laments one outside consultant. "You get to the point in a campaign where it's definitely better to be up than it is to be down [in the polls]," adds a campaign aide. "We're almost there."