Cokie and Steven Roberts
The Doug Marlette cartoon shows a huge billboard hawking the slogan, "NONE OF THE ABOVE 2008." A woman driving by cracks, "Looks like Fred Thompson's getting serious."
That telling comment is only partly true. Yes, the Thompson fantasy is fueled by a deep disenchantment with the current field of Republican candidates. The former Tennessee senator and movie and television actor has emerged as an idealized — and largely imaginary — alternative. Voters know very little about him, which is precisely the point.
No facts, no flaws.
If that billboard fully reflected the anguish rippling through Republican ranks, it would also contain a huge portrait of Hillary Clinton linked to a dire warning: "STOP THIS WOMAN." What was once a distant nightmare for GOP loyalists has now jelled into a very real possibility: The junior senator from New York could well become the nation's 44th president.
Thompson is keenly aware that the strongest emotion driving his candidacy is fear. "I don't want to turn the keys of the country over to Hillary Clinton," he told a California audience. "I think with me you wouldn't have to do that."
While polls are notoriously unreliable at this stage, they clearly reveal the frantic Republican search for a Hillary-victory killer. Thompson has yet to make a formal announcement, but in the latest USA Today/Gallup poll he placed second with 19 percent, a gain of eight points in two weeks. Rudy Giuliani still led with 28 percent but lost four points. John McCain stayed steady, finishing third with 18 percent, while Mitt Romney slumped to 7 percent.
In South Carolina, a critical early primary state, Thompson surged into first place in the latest Mason-Dixon poll, leading Giuliani 25 to 21.
Typical Thompson supporters are older, churchgoing, conservative males — precisely the voters most agitated by the prospect of a Clinton comeback. They are also the Republicans most likely to grow disillusioned with Giuliani as they learn more about him: three wives, estranged kids, gay friends, shady business partners and a tolerance for women who have abortions.
Guiliani's campaign is built on one word — tough. Tough on criminals, tough on terrorists, tough on dirt and disorder. But his post-9/11 luster is fading badly as the invasion of Iraq — which he completely supports — collapses into chaos. Sure, he was a hard-nosed district attorney, but Thompson plays one on TV, and on the tube, all cases get neatly resolved in an hour.
McCain's campaign has stalled because he's lashed himself to two extremely unpopular positions: More rights for illegal immigrants in America and more troops for combat commanders in Iraq. The first alienates conservatives, and the second, moderates — not exactly a winning strategy.
Much has been made of Romney's Mormonism (and his faith certainly makes some GOPers uneasy) but his real problem is his failure to connect with ordinary voters. He comes across as too polished, too packaged. No scars, no seasoning. The Ken doll candidate.
No wonder GOP loyalists are hungry for Thompson, or at least an idealized version of him. There's a lot of silly talk about the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan and Thompson is doing his best to promote the idea, traveling to England this week and meeting with Margaret Thatcher, one of the Gipper's closest allies.
Both were actors, but the comparison ends there. Reagan might have been playing a president, but it was his greatest role and he played it very well. Moreover, he had something to say, a clear and compelling message that could be summed up in six words: smaller government, lower taxes, stronger defense.
Thompson has little to say. He's trying to run as an anti-Washington outsider and jumpstart the red pick-up truck he drove during two winning Senate campaigns in the 1990s. But, in truth, he's spent most of his adult life growing rich and famous in the city he scorns. Opposition researchers and investigative journalists are just now starting to examine his past and the scrutiny will be scorching.
His record includes a long tenure as a high-priced Washington lobbyist and a Senate career that he abandoned after eight undistinguished and unproductive years. Then there's the shotgun wedding at 17, and a second marriage to a woman younger than his adult children. What will the family values folks think of all that?
Here's Thompson's real campaign slogan: None of the Above Can Stop Hillary. Hardly Morning in America, or the New Frontier, but Republicans are so terrified of another Clinton, it might work.
Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.