When it met Sunday to choose a presidential candidate, the National Right to Life Committee’s board considered three factors for each candidate: positions, record, and electability. On that basis, they voted “overwhelmingly,” according to executive director David O’Steen, to endorse former senator Fred Thompson, who has a 100-percent pro-life voting record and mostly stands with NRLC on issues of abortion and embryonic research. (O’Steen would not release more details about board deliberations — including names of board members.)
Despite some troubling comments the Tennessee Republican made in his Nov. 4 appearance on Meet the Press and elsewhere, Thompson’s positions and record are more closely aligned with NRLC than any of the other major candidates. Romney, for example, was once pro-choice on abortion, and has advocated the use of so-called “surplus” embryos for scientific experiments. McCain has voted for federal funding of that embryonic research, and Giuliani supports legal abortion outright.
But is Thompson more electable in the primary than, say, Mike Huckabee or Ron Paul? There is little evidence right now that he is.
The NRLC board must have great faith in Thompson’s campaign team, because its endorsement may be the only good news for Thompson in at least a month. After a series of unimpressive appearances on a sparse schedule, one above-par debate performance, and a number of policy announcements (immigration, Social Security, and expanding the size of the military) that garnered little coverage, polls have offered Thompson nothing but bad news since he became a candidate. Can his campaign find the groove it has never had, or has NRLC just hitched itself to a falling star?
Since his early September debut, Thompson’s national numbers have gone in just one direction — downward. His Real Clear Politics national poll average peaked just below 24-percent just after he announced, and since then it has gradually declined to its current level at 16-percent.
“These go up and down,” O’Steen said of the polls in an interview with National Review Online on Tuesday. “But when we’ve looked at it over a longer period of time, the vast majority of the time he’s been second to pro-abortion Rudy Giuliani. We believe he’s well positioned in South Carolina, he’s well positioned in Nevada, and I think he’s in good shape to move forward to Feb 5.”
O’Steen had not seen the latest polls. Although Thompson’s numbers have held up or declined just slightly in South Carolina, Zogby released a Nevada poll on Monday (the day after the vote to endorse Thompson) suggesting that he has sunk to a distant third place at 13-percent.
Thompson adviser and pollster John McLaughlin insisted that Thompson’s situation is not as dire as it appears — he just needs a few weeks of advertising to turn things around. “What you’re missing here in all this is that Romney is running television,” he said. “No one has been competing with him. He can win as long as nobody else is there. There was no way we could compete in the first few weeks with money, but now we can.”
A new ad buy in Iowa, McLaughlin said, should begin to bear fruit by early December, cutting into Romney’s 20-plus point advantage. Yet, although the ads began last week, two Iowa polls taken over the weekend show Thompson in fourth place at 11 and 9 points. He had nothing encouraging to say about New Hampshire, where Thompson is hardly a blip — at 3-percent, the new Boston Globe poll shows him trailing a surging Ron Paul, as do two other recent surveys.
In Florida, an Insider Advantage poll showed Thompson in the lead at 27 percent in early September. The same poll tracked him downward to 19-percent in early October and then 13 percent late last month. His decline in Quinnipiac’s polls has been less dramatic, but he has fallen and lost ground against Giuliani. He stood in fifth place at just 8 percent in the latest St. Petersburg Times poll, just behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R.).
If they are to embrace a fourth- or fifth-place candidate, why shouldn’t pro-lifers embrace Huckabee or Paul instead? Despite Romney’s ads, Huckabee is offering him a serious challenge (now within six points) in Iowa. Paul, with more cash than Thompson, will likely beat him in New Hampshire. Futures traders at Intrade.com consider both of these “second-tier” candidates more likely than Thompson to win the nomination.
NRLC’s endorsement was intended to designate a truly pro-life candidate around whom conservatives can unite to defeat Rudy Giuliani, O’Steen said. “I think it is important for people to coalesce around one person, because in all of these polls, pro-abortion Rudy Giuliani has been leading.” But with the possible exception of South Carolina, there appear to be no early primary states where Thompson is anything like a consensus anti-Giuliani candidate.
Despite an earnest desire among conservative voters to see him succeed and offer an alternative to “Rudy McRomney,” Thompson let all of the energy and buzz from prior to his announcement subside. As Cokie Roberts put it this weekend, he is “strolling” for the presidency.” Many conservatives gave up on Fred weeks ago and started looking back to McCain, Romney, and the second-tier candidates. Many seasoned campaigners in Washington have written him off as well. This is not a problem that advertising can solve.
Moreover, Thompson has shown evidence of ideological problems — as least on the social issues, presumably important to a core of NRLC’s base. His embrace of a middle-ground position on same-sex marriage worried conservatives, as has his statement on abortion. (He rejected the idea of Human Life Amendment to the constitution. O’Steen of NRLC — echoing his colleague Darla St. Martin — was not concerned with this, as the amendment is unlikely for now and Thompson as president would “concentrate on things he can do.”)
Thompson is counting on the NRLC backing for a huge boost — perhaps a bigger boost than it can deliver. McLaughlin insists that it will be very significant, helping him and playing up Romney’s greatest vulnerability — his inconsistency over time on life issues. Yet Romney’s shortcomings aside, he is both talking the pro-life talk and doing what it takes to win. To the extent that they can afford to, so are Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, and John McCain.
Fred Thompson is running out of time to show that he can do it too, and to save the NRLC from having wasted its endorsement.
— David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.