Now that the suspense is (almost) over, so, too, is the fun part for Fred Thompson. Will the former senator, R-Tenn., ever look as good as he does right now? Not likely.
It's not just that Thompson can't be the answer to all the hopes and dreams of a troubled Republican Party -- no one can. And it's not just that his political record (or lack thereof) will draw newly intense scrutiny. (Though if the rest of the GOP field is looking for good news today, there you have it.)
Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., told an interviewer yesterday that Thompson will make the race "more interesting," and that's an understatement. But high expectations set a high bar, and now that he's in the race (just about), the storyline is already becoming set: Thanks for coming, Fred, but who exactly are you, and what makes you think you should be president? And what do you mean you want to be home by 5 o'clock?
Even the way he is rolling out his candidacy is drawing criticism. Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio pronounced himself "surprised and a little sad," telling The New York Times' Carl Hulse and Patrick Healy that Thompson needed a grand entrance instead of putting off a formal announcement for a month or more. "You need to send signals that say, 'I'm here and I'm going to win,' " he said.
And while delaying a formal announcement will mean he can avoid (temporarily) reporting second-quarter fund-raising figures, Thompson will be judged early and often. "Questions about his viability would arise if there should be anything less than strong performances in his first debates, in his ability to raise funds quickly, or in rapidly assembling organizations in states with early contests next year," write Michael Shear and Dan Balz of The Washington Post.
Thompson himself tells USA Today's Susan Page that his late start brings with it "certain advantages." "Nobody has maxed out to me" in contributions, he said, and using the Internet already "has allowed me to be in the hunt, so to speak, without spending a dime." (For the record, he leaves little room in the interview for the possibility that he won't actually run, and says he knows that running for president means "working your fanny off.")
Conservative columnist Robert Novak, who panned Thompson's California coming-out speech, sees Thompson getting appropriately fired up for the race, and adds a line that warms many Nashville hearts this morning: "In his Senate voting record and his public utterances, Thompson is more conservative than Giuliani, McCain or Romney."
For a sign that there's room for Thompson, look no further than Florida, where "an overwhelming majority of President Bush's top political fundraisers . . . are sitting on the sidelines so far in the 2008 presidential race. Of the 54 Floridians who raised at least $100,000 for Bush-Cheney in 2004, only 10 have given to any Republican contender to succeed Bush," reports Adams Smith of the St. Petersburg Times. Yes, ANY.
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