“Iowa is where it’s at right now,” former senator Fred Thompson (R., Tenn.) told Bob Schieffer Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation. “We’ve had a real good several days. I think we’re going to be ready at the right time and in the right way.”
“Is Iowa it for you?” Schieffer asked.
“Yeah, we need to do well in Iowa,” Thompson replied. “There’s no question about it.”
Just over one month ago, Thompson pollster John McLaughlin told National Review Online that Thompson’s Iowa ad buys would yield dividends by early December. He attributed his candidate’s poor performance at that point to the fact that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was practically buying the state. “What you’re missing here in all this is that Romney is running television,” McLaughlin said. “No one has been competing with him.”
It is now Dec. 17, and someone is, in fact, competing with Romney and beating him in Iowa Republican-primary polls. But it is not Fred Thompson — it’s former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Fred is flat or down from a month ago. The Thompson campaign declined the opportunity to answer several questions for this story — one of them was whether he has a new plan to win there.
Echoing the candidate himself Sunday, one Thompson adviser told NRO that Fred was still very much in the race: “I don’t know that he needs to have a different plan.” Thompson does have an ambitious schedule in his swing through Iowa this month, with four to five events each day this week, and plans to stay in Iowa through the caucus with a short break for Christmas. He has also shown some late signs of life — his fantastic debate performance last week, for example. But he has failed to gain any ground in the states where he needs to. As with teams that fall behind in the NFL playoff race, he “no longer controls his own destiny.” He has been reduced to waiting for the “Hucka-Bust” and gambling that he will be the beneficiary.
The very notion would have seemed absurd when Thompson first entered the race. Conservatives eagerly welcomed an alternative to the three frontrunners: the one they disagreed with (Rudy Giuliani), the one they disliked (John McCain), and the one they distrusted (Mitt Romney). By late summer, Thompson’s name was on the lips of every conservative in Washington. He was the potential savior who could swoop in and fill the political vacuum, in the process providing the GOP with a viable nominee for the general election.
But Huckabee’s success to date is the clearest sign that Thompson may have missed his opportunity. Huckabee has passed Romney in Iowa, but his gain has not all or even mostly come at Romney’s expense. Comparing each individual firm’s polls for the last month (Rasmussen, ARG, Zogby, and Strategic Vision all had polls about a month apart), it appears that Romney has lost somewhere between five and seven points in Iowa. Huckabee has gained between 16 and 23 points, seizing a substantial number of undecided voters and some early Giuliani backers.
Those were supposed to be Thompson’s people — Republicans waiting for a “real conservative” to enter the race.
As NR’s editors noted recently, Thompson’s campaign has come out with some of the most stunningly brilliant, specific, and feasible policy positions of any candidate. Yet his campaign has been a disappointment. Why is this? His anguished supporters and still-friendly former staff offer an explanation to counter what they see as a spurious charge of laziness.