Johnston, Iowa — Fred Thompson’s performance at the Des Moines Register Republican debate here in Iowa Wednesday left some supporters — the kind who were enthusiastic early on but who have grown skeptical as his campaign has stumbled — wondering to themselves: Could he still be the best guy, after all that’s happened? As the debate unfolded, there were moments when some of those loyalists began to think the answer might be yes — in spite of everything.
Something has happened to Thompson in recent weeks. Yes, his schedule is still astonishingly light for a presidential candidate. And yes, he sometimes still underwhelms audiences. But in the last month or so Thompson has acted like a man who has been liberated from something. And that is what voters saw on stage Wednesday: a presidential candidate who has declared himself fully free of the stupid stuff one has to do to become president of the United States.
If you’re going to ask Fred Thompson to participate in a grade-school show of hands, or demand that he sign a pledge, or insist that he speak emotionally and at length about how much his religious faith means to him, well, you can just forget it. He’s not gonna do it.
The moment of final liberation came when Des Moines Register editor Carolyn Washburn, the schoolmarmish moderator whom commentator Fred Barnes would later refer to as “Nurse Ratched,” asked the candidates to raise their hands if they believed that “global climate change is a serious threat and caused by human activity.” Before anyone could say anything, Thompson interrupted.
“I’m not doing hand shows today,” he said. “No hand shows.”
“Is that yes or no for you?” Washburn asked. “Do you believe that global climate change is — “
“Well, do you want to give me a minute?” Thompson responded.
“Then I’m not going to answer it.”
“How about thirty seconds?”
“No. You know — you want a show of hands. I’m not giving it to you.”
The audience loved it. Thompson, and Thompson alone, had stood up to the silliness that can characterize even self-styled serious-minded debates like the one conducted by the Register. Thompson scored again when he made effective points about entitlement reform, about the role of the National Education Association in blocking education reform, and about presidential leadership. His performance was so good that it underscored what has been, until recently, one particularly strange irony of this campaign. The showbiz guy is one of the best candidates when it comes to substance. He just had trouble selling the product.
Not on Wednesday. After the debate, Thompson’s strategists were elated. But the question remains: If Thompson has arrived, if he has indeed raised his game, is it too late for it to do any good?
“It shows that there is a reason why candidates sometimes get in early, because you need to do some warm-up practice,” advisor Rich Galen told me. “But I think now, he’s in mid-season form. And if you’re going to do it, this is exactly the right time to do it. If you’re going to get into mid-season form, it’s good to do it when everybody’s paying attention.”
Well, advisors are paid to put things in the best possible light. But it is true that Thompson has gotten better — at the last possible minute — and he might benefit by his new concentration on Iowa. Most polls here show him in third place — far behind Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney — but not without hope. After the debate, his team was putting out the word that a third-place finish might be just fine, provided Huckabee and Romney hurt each other in the process. “We have to provide a clear choice for this third position,” another Thompson adviser, Mary Matalin, told me. “A solid third, not just an accidental third.”
“Remember, we don’t have to win,” Galen told me. “We don’t even have to come in second.” But say Thompson comes in third. What comes after that? It’s being generous to say the way is not clear. But strange things can happen.
One problem some voters in Iowa have had with Mitt Romney, until recently the front-runner here, is that the former Massachusetts governor seems quite visibly to want the prize too badly and is too willing to do whatever it takes to win it. Voters have a way of denying things to candidates like that. Thompson, on the other hand, is the anti-Mitt. He wants to win, but not at any cost. There’s a lot of appeal in that, but in the end it may turn out that Iowans want their candidates to do the stuff that Thompson won’t do; they might be in no mood to elect an anti-candidate candidate. That’s the gamble Thompson has taken by being himself.
After his much-ballyhooed buildup, Thompson did a lot to damage his chances. And the odds are he will fail. But the Thompson who emerged in Iowa Wednesday might come out in the end as the stand-up guy of the campaign, the actor who just didn’t have the stomach for real-life show business.