In the latest Marist College poll of Republican voters in New Hampshire, Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee are tied for fourth at 7 percent apiece. Fred Thompson languishes in sixth place with 5 percent. A Boston Globe survey has him at 3 percent.
It's highly unlikely that any of these men will become president or even win the GOP nomination. But Paul, the libertarian Congressman from Texas, and Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, are doing this right. They're campaigning hard and smart, treating voters with respect, advancing ideas that are fresh and fearless.
Thompson, the former senator and current actor, is doing exactly the opposite. He's strolling for the nomination, not running, and treating voters with contempt. He has nothing much to say and says it poorly. Every reviewer agrees: This campaign movie is a bust, headed straight for the video store.
One senior Republican strategist told us recently that Thompson was running largely to satisfy the ambitions of his young wife, Jeri, his closest adviser. The explanation makes sense because nothing else does. Yes, many Republicans are unhappy with the rest of the field, and yes, they are terrified of Hillary Clinton in the White House. But why should Thompson be taken seriously as an alternative?
He spent eight undistinguished years in the Senate and then quit, bored with the job. Playing a politician in the movies and on TV was far more appealing than actually being one. He postponed his announcement for months, a sure sign of his ambivalence. And then he skipped a candidate debate to appear on "The Tonight Show," reinforcing the view that he prefers a soundstage in Hollywood to a town hall in Ottumwa.
Thompson's stump speech is chock full of platitudes about his conservative credentials and the mess in Washington. The reception has been so tepid that at one humiliating appearance in Iowa — widely circulated on YouTube — he pleaded with the audience, "First of all, could I have a round of applause?"
After listening to Thompson, a prominent New Hampshire Republican told a traveling British writer, Toby Harnden, why the candidate was not connecting: "The American people like folks that have a positive, hopeful message. This felt very pessimistic. He doesn't have the kind of fire and brimstone that excites people or gives them a reason to vote for him."
That provides a sharp contrast to Huckabee, who is giving voters plenty of reasons to vote for him. His personal story is inspiring ("I'm one generation away from dirt floors and outdoor toilets"), and his humor is unfailing. After a ringing cell phone interrupted a speech, he cracked, "That was probably Dick Cheney wanting to take me hunting. No way."
As a former Baptist preacher, he has consistent conservative principles rooted in deep religious conviction. He opposes abortion and same-sex marriage but also favors scholarships for children of illegal immigrants ("If a person is educated, they're going to be a taxpayer, not a tax taker").
He calls caring for the environment a "spiritual issue" and feels the same way about personal fitness: "God made us to be active." You don't have to share his beliefs to appreciate his sincerity. He clearly means it when he says that his goal is to fulfill the biblical admonition, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
Ron Paul is sincere and consistent in a different way. He believes in small government and personal freedom. Period. Washington should not collect taxes, or violate civil liberties. He hates the Department of Education and also the war in Iraq. President Bush and his supporters are not true conservatives, they're "neoconservatives … big-government people." The conservative position, Paul says, "is to not start wars and to obey the Constitution."
What's most interesting about Paul is the way his campaign has ignited on the Internet. He raised more than $4 million in one day, and more than 1,000 pro-Paul groups have started in 900 cities with more than 67,000 members. The Web allows these supporters to be active — giving money, organizing events, passing on information — and that sense of engagement produces a special fervor. As volunteer Chester Gould told the New York Times: "I feel like I am the campaign."
Huckabee and Paul will almost certainly lose, but they have campaigned with honor and contributed to the national debate. Thompson is not a real candidate: He's an actor playing a candidate, and the voters sense the phoniness. That's why they're not coming to his movie.
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.