Where Thompson Went Wrong

Just six months ago Fred Thompson was considered the man to beat in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, an articulate former-senator-turned-actor whose campaign was so hotly anticipated that he was branded the second coming of Ronald Reagan—before his first campaign speech.

Thompson did little to discourage the hype, eventually declaring his candidacy on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and vowing to mount an unconventional run for the White House. He wasn't kidding. Entering the race months after his opponents, Thompson stayed off the trail for weeks at a time; when he did show up, the former Tennessee senator did little to conceal his disdain for the process of campaigning. He thought that was a political plus—but the stance left voters wondering whether he really wanted the White House after all.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't," Thompson insisted earlier this month when quizzed by an Iowa voter on whether he really desired to be president. "I am not consumed by personal ambition. I will not be devastated if I don't do it … I'm offering myself up."

But, he admitted a few seconds later, "I'm not particularly interested in running for president, but I think I'd make a good president." Thompson paused and grinned. "If what people really want in their president is a super-type-A personality, someone who has gotten up every morning and gone to bed every night and been thinking about, for years, how they can be president … someone who can look you straight in the eye and say they've enjoyed every minute of campaigning, I ain't that guy," Thompson said.

Indeed he wasn't. On Tuesday, after a disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina, Thompson ended his campaign in a style fitting his unconventional bid, in a three-sentence statement issued to reporters via e-mail. "Today I have withdrawn my candidacy for President of the United States," Thompson said. "I hope that my country and my party have benefited from our having made this effort."

Thompson's rise and fall is astounding considering the chaos of the Republican primary, which still lacks a clear front runner. His candidacy didn't seem so hopeless at first. The buzz about the possibility of Thompson run started just about a year ago, when the former senator confirmed to Fox News that he was considering a run. He was viewed as a consistent conservative (Thompson boasted an 86 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, four points higher than John McCain). And he was seen as someone who could unite the party and fill the void in what was considered a generally lackluster GOP field. As rumors that he might toss his hat in the ring ramped up, his poll numbers rose—reaching the 20s in some surveys, matching numbers put up by McCain and Rudy Giuliani. In May, Thompson generated even more buzz by posting an online video challenging Michael Moore on Cuba and health-care policy.

Impressed by the publicity the video generated, Thompson, his wife Jeri and a handful of aides began drawing up a game plan based less on retail campaigning than on Internet strategy: videos, blogs and other forms of online outreach. Aides set a $5 million fund-raising goal for June, built around the idea that Thompson would officially get in the race in July.

In retrospect, that may have been the high-water mark of his campaign.

Thompson gave a series of highly anticipated political speeches that mostly flopped. And donors, unconvinced that Thompson's heart was in the race, sat on their money. He raised just over $3 million—far less than aides had hoped. The candidate remained balky, repeatedly delaying his entry into the race, arguing that he still had plenty of time to consider a run. Newly recruited staffers, eager to set up a calendar of political and fund-raising appearances, ran into resistance from Jeri, who was considered the de facto campaign manager. By August, Thompson had gone through three different campaign managers, and several other key aides had either quit or been fired—all before Thompson even officially entered the race.

He turned to an old friend, former Bob Dole adviser Bill Lacy, to help right the ship. The first course change: Thompson turned away from the early strategy of reaching out to voters online in favor of a more traditional campaign—a move that prompted even more staffers to leave, including Mark Corallo, a former Justice Department aide who was one of Thompson's earliest and closest aides.

"Had Fred gotten in the race in July as originally planned and campaigned his heart out, we'd be reading about others dropping out," Corallo tells NEWSWEEK. He argues the online strategy would have worked. "The proof is in the precampaign rocket to the top," he insists. "But for reasons I still don't understand he changed course, opting for the remnants of the Dole campaign," he said, referring to the former GOP Senate leader's failed 1996 presidential bid. After that, Corallo says, "The campaign lost its energy and soul."

On the stump Thompson struggled. He was trashed for showing up to the Iowa State Fair in Gucci shoes and riding around in a golf cart instead of talking to voters. At his announcement speech in Des Moines, he appeared less than enthusiastic; he never seemed to enjoy town halls or other contacts with voters. Behind the scenes there was more drama. His staff complained about Jeri's influence and griped that the candidate refused to give up control of the little things, like press releases. Thompson, an aide grumbled to NEWSWEEK last fall, wanted to approve every news release issued by the campaign before it was sent. "He won't let go," the aide said. As a result, time-sensitive e-mails were often sent hours, even days, late—a pattern that became a running joke between some Thompson communications aides and the reporters covering him.

Thompson also refused to read his prepared remarks, straying into rambling discourses on the stump that drove his staff crazy. "Stick to the text. Please stick to the text!" another aide, who declined to be named discussing private conversations with the candidate, recalls telling Thompson.

Thompson faced questions from the start about whether he had the necessary fire in the belly. But he did little to try to rebut that notion, keeping a loose, light schedule even in the waning weeks of his campaign. He did issue aggressive policy pronouncements—on health care and how to save Social Security, to name two. But voters just didn't bite. In spite of a last-ditch push in Iowa, Thompson placed a distant third, barely besting McCain, who had hardly bothered to campaign in the state. Thompson skipped New Hampshire to concentrate on South Carolina. But he failed to make serious inroads among evangelicals there; in spite of the endorsement of the National Right to Life, he lost to Mike Huckabee.

What happens now is a mystery. Thompson, who headed to Tennessee after South Carolina to care for his ailing mother, has privately told associates that he will not endorse another candidate, at least not immediately. It has long been expected that Thompson would endorse McCain, a close friend and former Senate ally. Thompson chaired McCain's 2000 campaign and had been making calls on behalf of the Arizona senator's presidential campaign before he decided to launch his own bid.

Yet it's unclear if Thompson's endorsement would make a huge difference in the race. According to exit polls in Iowa and South Carolina, Thompson's biggest appeal was among voters who described themselves as "very conservative." More than half of his supporters described themselves as evangelicals; they split their vote between Thompson and Huckabee. For his part, Huckabee told MSNBC that he likely would have won South Carolina had Thompson not been in the race. "The votes that he took were essentially the votes I would have most likely had," Huckabee said Tuesday.

Now Huckabee and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney are scrambling to pick up what support Thompson had in Florida; the two are locked in a close contest with front runners McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Within an hour of Thompson's announcement Tuesday, Romney issued a statement praising Thompson, an unusual move for a candidate who has clashed often with the former Tennessee senator. "He stood for strong conservative ideas and believed strongly in the need to keep our conservative coalition together," Romney said in the statement.

Thompson associates refused to predict whether the former Tennessee senator would change his mind and throw his support behind a rival, and declined to speculate on who benefits most from his departure. Instead, one outgoing Thompson aide told NEWSWEEK, staffers were mourning a "lost opportunity."

"It is very sad to those of us who started out with him, as he was the only
consistent conservative in the race," Corallo told NEWSWEEK. "Fred was a lackluster candidate who would have made a great president."