The question: When Fred Thompson opted to announce his presidential candidacy from the comfort of Jay Leno’s arm chair Wednesday night — instead of participating in the Republican debate in New Hampshire that same evening — did that hurt his campaign in New Hampshire?
The answer: What campaign in New Hampshire?
“I think we’ll be getting staff within a week,” Thompson adviser Dan Hughes, a former Republican state representative from New Castle, told me Friday. “I think there’ll be an announcement within the next few days.”
Thompson not only has no paid staff in New Hampshire, he has no organization. He has two advisers, Hughes and former Reagan administration official Gerry Carmen of Manchester. But Carmen is known to spend a lot of his time in Washington, and Hughes has been the one carrying Thompson’s water in New Hampshire this summer.
It was Hughes who organized Thompson’s first visit to the state in June.
“I told everybody he was running and they didn’t believe me,” he said. “But now they do.”
Thompson’s no-show at Wednesday night’s debate unquestionably hurt him with a lot of New Hampshire Republicans. The debate was co-sponsored by FOX News and the state GOP. A lot of Republicans felt that by skipping an official party-sponsored debate Thompson was rudely dismissing the entire state party. So in addition to disappointing Granite Staters in general, he offended Republican insiders in particular.
(Carmen and Hughes got tickets to the debate, but they did not get passes to the spin room afterwards.)
But hurting the pride of top Republicans is the least of Thompson’s worries in New Hampshire. If he commits to campaigning here and impresses Republican and independent voters (New Hampshire’s primaries are open) in the next five months, he certainly could overcome this offense. But to do that he has to have a ground game. New Hampshire is all about the ground game. Thompson has nothing. Nor does he seem too concerned about getting one.
This late in the game, an impressively organized campaign would have had staff in place, or at least announced, the day after the official declaration of candidacy. Thompson’s staff might take a week to get here.
I asked Hughes if he had signs ready to put up and bumper stickers ready to hand out.
“I have some bumper stickers from the committee that was before Friends of Fred, whatever the hell that was,” he said. “We haven’t been actually even trying to get them out. You really can’t be running a campaign if you’re testing the waters, and we haven’t.”
Hughes does have a database of supporters. But it cannot be a big list. At the debate, there were exactly two “Fredheads” holding signs outside the arena. They told me there were a lot of Thompson backers in New Hampshire — “100 of us.”
How is Thompson going to drum up more support in New Hampshire, where he consistently ranks third in the polls, a good 15 to 20 points behind Mitt Romney? Apparently not by campaigning here. Thompson is doing exactly three events in New Hampshire this weekend. When will he return?
“He’ll be back I know in October, but I don’t know the schedule,” Hughes said.
It is an axiom of political campaigning that candidates improve with experience. As Hughes acknowledged, “The more you’re out there, the better you get.” In New Hampshire, Rudy Giuliani has spent the past six months becoming a much better campaigner. John McCain is hitting his stride again and Mitt Romney, Wednesday night’s debate performance aside, is an outstanding campaigner. Thompson, on the other hand, is rusty and almost entirely untested in New Hampshire. Nationally, most of his early performance reviews have been abysmal. So although he enters the race at the traditional starting point — around Labor Day weekend — he is way behind in fundraising, organization and practice.
He also has the distinct disadvantage that most of New Hampshire’s top-flight Republican operatives are committed to other campaigns. Even the big-name endorsements are being snatched up, though there are plenty left to be had.
If Thompson plans to win New Hampshire, he enters the contest at a serious disadvantage. It is not an insurmountable one. He has five months, and Granite Staters are famous for not making up their minds until days before, if not the day of, the primary. But it will take time for him to build an organization here and get to the point where his campaign is really competitive. The other candidates have a big head start, and Thompson does not seem to have a natural base of support in New Hampshire. He polls worse here than he does nationally. Most NH Republicans I’ve talked with say Thompson needs to essentially camp out in New Hampshire for the next five months if he wants to win it.
However, if Thompson does not plan to win New Hampshire, none of this really matters. If he plans, say, to let the eight other candidates duke it out in Iowa and New Hampshire, leaving one winner to take him on in South Carolina and Florida — southern states where he would have a natural advantage over a Northeastern Republican like Giuliani or Romney — then he doesn’t need to pay more than token attention to New Hampshire.
So far, token attention is all New Hampshire has received from Fred Thompson.
— Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader in Manchester, N.H.