THE NOTE: Fred's Fumbles

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To: Fred Dalton Thompson, US Senator, Tennessee (retired)

From: Arthur Branch, District Attorney, New York County (retired)

Buck up, son. So you weren't sure what you'd have done in the Terri Schiavo case -- they're not gonna unplug you for that. So you want "due process" for Osama -- we know that's code for letting Jack Bauer have at him. So now you're concerned about the threat posed by the Soviet Union -- so was Ronald Reagan, and that worked out pretty well for that old boy, now didn't it?

It's like I always told McCoy -- smile for the cameras, let the flies buzz, and elections are a breeze. And he's a liberal! You're a conservative, which means you're for solid, righteous, good things, like American values, common sense, and cookies. Plus you've got Jeri to protect you from the snakes -- particularly in that jungle of a campaign you've got. (And might I say, she is looking . . . po-li-ti-cal these days.)

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One month into the campaign that never seemed to start, Thompson looks like he spent all summer testing the waters but somehow never learned how to swim. His campaign may be right that voters aren't paying attention to his daily hiccups, that he can talk his way out of any gaps in his knowledge. He's still a solid second in national polls.

But something dangerous is happening to Thompson: A perception is sinking in that he's in over his head, or at least that he's not showing much interest in this whole running-for-president thing. This magnifies every mistake -- and once this narrative is written, good luck trying to act your way out of it.

The New York Times' Adam Nagourney sums up his campaign as one of "broad generalities" -- "Let's continue doing what works and quit doing what doesn't work" -- and little energy. "As Mr. Thompson campaigned in Iowa this week, he was something other than the dynamic presence that some in his party have been yearning for," Nagourney writes. "Iowans saw a subdued, laconic candidate who spoke in a soft monotone, threw few elbows and displayed little drive to distinguish himself from his opponents."

Add these to the catalog of miscues: Aside from expressing concerns about those pesky Soviets in an interview with Radio Iowa yesterday, he talked about how proud he was to guide Chief Justice John Roberts' nomination through the Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee. (The Republicans were in charge until this year.) He also switched his position on ethanol subsidies, which he voted against while in Congress, Rick Pearson reports in the Chicago Tribune.

That follows a similar switch on No Child Left Behind, which he voted for and now rails against. And David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network has video of Thompson offering this reaction to the hypothetical situation of a governor signing a bill allowing gay marriage: "So be it." (There's a campaign slogan for you.)

The Des Moines Register's Linda Lantor Fandel found him "awkward at making small talk, or not interested" during Thompson's editorial board meeting. "But as the interview got under way, Thompson demonstrated that he knows how to frame big problems -- national and international," she writes. Yet "Thompson gave long, meandering answers, but offered few solutions or detailed plans." If he doesn't become president? "The worst thing that can happen to me in this process is that I get sent back to being the happiest man that you ever met," Thompson said.

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