THE NOTE: Fred in the Fray


A fond farewell to Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a nice man who never quite broke through in a crowded presidential field. He once seemed like the candidate who could consolidate the social-conservative base, but his distant third-place finish in the Ames Straw Poll in August virtually ensured that he wouldn't be it.

Brownback's numbers were always too low for this to be a major boon to anyone, but his exit highlights a void in the field, at a really interesting time in the race, with the "Values Voters Summit" starting tomorrow in Washington. Paging Fred Thompson . . .

Meanwhile, five sentences we never though we'd write:

1. Stephen Colbert is a presidential candidate.

2. Mitt Romney can't afford a vanilla steamer.

3. Lynne Cheney is lending a hand to her husband's cousin.

4. "Mission Accomplished" is being used to rap a Democrat, not a Republican -- and President Bush actually declared that he's still "relevant."

5. Fred Thompson has a campaign message.

Today is the day that President Bush today finds out just how relevant he really is, as the latest slow-motion car crash pitting him against congressional Democrats crunches to a close with the long-awaited veto override attempt on children's health insurance.

Bush could afford to be combative yesterday, confident as he is (and he should be) that the GOP ranks will close behind him to sustain his veto. "I've never felt more engaged," the president said at his news conference. But when he has to declare that the veto is "one way to ensure that I am relevant," he's speaking to the beleaguered state of his presidency, not to mention the Republican Party.

The Republican presidential candidates, united as they are on fiscal discipline, are giving the president cover on a veto where the public is with the Democrats. That's remarkable: President Bush has a 33 percent approval rating in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, yet none of the major GOP candidates is breaking from Bush in a significant, policy-oriented way.

But all around the president, his party is showing signs of breaking down. Former House speaker Dennis Hastert's early departure provides a punctuation point on a bad GOP sentence: lagging fund-raising, deep philosophical divisions, poor, inconsistent messaging.

And it's social issues that are splitting the Republican Party most seriously these days, as the presidential candidates prepare to address the "Values Voters Summit" tomorrow and Friday.

Enter Thompson, R-Tenn., into the fray that made his candidacy possible in the first place. These are baby steps, but it's a start: Thompson is running new Internet ads that "specifically question the anti-abortion records of fellow Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, piecing together quotes and pictures from the respective candidates," ABC's Christine Byun writes. "The ads also declare Thompson's latest pitch: 'I was a proud conservative yesterday, I remain one today, and I will be one tomorrow.' "

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