Des Moines — Conscience of a Conservative. Ronald Reagan. The 1994 Republican takeover. The motifs of Fred Thompson’s candidacy for president — all mentioned in a brief video introducing the first official event of his campaign — recall the most beloved icons of the modern conservative movement. At a kickoff political rally Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa, it became clear that Thompson is betting his campaign on his ability to convince conservatives that he shares their values and always has.
Talking to a small group of reporters after Thompson’s speech, campaign manager Bill Lacy hammered this theme repeatedly. “Who’s the genuine conservative in the race?” he said when asked how Fred planned to distinguish himself from his Republican opponents. “What matters to the voters is where the candidate has come down on these issues in the past.” Lacy said Fred’s association with the Republican revolution of 1994, the year he was elected to his first term in the Senate, is going to remind conservatives that Thompson’s been with them for a long time.
Several Iowa Republicans I talked to after the event didn’t need reminding. Gary Hauge, a lifelong Republican and retired teamster, says he supports Thompson because “I see a tremendous parallel between Fred and Reagan.” He says he hadn’t favored any of the Republican candidates so far because of “all the flip-flopping and empty rhetoric,” and he has been “waiting for either Fred or Newt [Gingrich] to get in the race.”
If Gingrich announced a run, what then? “Then I’d have a tough decision,” Hauge admits.
Which raises an interesting question: Would a Gingrich candidacy have the effect of drawing support away from Fred? Both men would be trying to woo movement conservatives who aren’t happy with their current choices. Ted Sporer, chairman of the Iowa GOP’s organization committee, says, “Newt truly is the X factor.”
“If Newt gets in he will draw support from everyone,” Sporer says. “I’m not certain that anyone can intelligently predict how that would affect the dynamic, but I think if Newt gets in, A) it does hurt Fred, because Fred is new and he won’t have deep, ingrained support yet, and B) I think it kills the McCain candidacy, although that’s like killing Dracula. Can you kill it after it’s already dead?”
Sporer says Thompson and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee are the “surging candidates” in Iowa and have already sapped significant support from McCain, with Mitt Romney’s lead in the polls holding relatively steady. At the same time, he says, it will be interesting to see whether social conservatives defect from Mitt to Fred. “That’s what I’ll have my eye on.”
Thompson’s first day on the campaign trail was not without speed bumps. Weeks ago, before she joined the Thompson campaign as deputy communications director, commentator Karen Hanretty wrote a blog post arguing that Iowa had taken on too much importance in presidential politics, and she introduced ethanol subsidies as exhibit A.
Bloggers “discovered” the post — titled “Put America First: Make Iowa Go Last” — on Thursday and circulated it rapidly. Meanwhile, Thompson was telling a Des Moines crowd, “In case some person somewhere does not know this, [the road to the White House] begins in Iowa, and that’s where we want it.”
When I asked him about Hanretty’s post, Thompson communications director Todd Harris said that staffers disagree with their bosses all the time. “What’s important is that [Fred] doesn’t agree with it,” he said.
The Thompson campaign also faced questions of whether he waited too late to join a campaign that, for some candidates, has been underway since January. “I think there are some people who will hold the late entry against him — not so much the late entry as not participating in the straw poll,” Sporer says. “That really is a big issue to Republicans in Iowa. It’s a pride thing.”
He adds, “I think it’s something that can be overcome.” He says in Iowa, as in much of the nation, polls show large majorities willing to change their minds before Election Day.
Thompson’s late entry doesn’t bother Iowans and veterans Caleb and Stacey Christine. I met these Thompson supporters waiting outside the Polk County Convention Complex for a chance to greet him before he boarded the giant tour bus — which bears his picture and the slogan “Security, Unity, Prosperity” — that will carry him across Iowa for the next two days. Stacy says, “This is the first candidate to come along since we’ve been able to vote that we’ve both thought, yeah, that’s someone I want to support.”
Caleb argues that getting in the race earlier isn’t necessarily better, and he uses the example of Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, a Democrat who announced his intention to run for president all the way back in November, but who dropped out in February because he lacked the money to continue.
“Vilsack started last year,” Caleb says. “He was the first one in and the first one out. We think Thompson will probably be the last one in, but also the last one left standing at the end.”
— Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.