Low-Key Thompson Stumbles Toward Finish Line

Two days before the Iowa caucuses — day 15 of his 17-day "hands down" bus tour — former senator Fred Thompson's campaign bus stood motionless in the snowy parking lot of a West Des Moines motel, across from a movie theater and a suburban strip mall.

Thompson's campaign scheduled only one event for New Year's Day, a meet-and-greet at the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown, about an hour outside Des Moines. Thompson, R-Tenn., shunned the bus, emblazoned with his picture, for the relative comfort of a black Chevrolet Suburban.

"We decided that we would give the people a break," Thompson told reporters after a casual 34 minutes spent meeting veterans. "We could either — it was a close call, to go jogging in almost zero-degree weather, or stay in and take a nap. After considerable consideration, I decided to take a nap."

Then, seeming to realize that such a line might be taken the wrong way for a candidate with a reputation for laziness, he added, "Just kidding, I didn't really take a nap."

Thompson spent most of New Year's Day with his family, watching college football games and enjoying quiet meals.

One of his main rivals, former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass., held seven events, while his wife appeared at another four. The other Iowa frontrunner, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., had four events on Tuesday, capped by a rally featuring actor Chuck Norris.

Thompson has staked his campaign's prospects to Iowa. In seeking to jump-start his campaign last month, he promised to crisscross the Hawkeye State with visits to 50 cities and towns in 17 days aboard his new campaign bus.

"Saddle me up," he said.

Marshalltown was the 45th event, and the campaign is on target to hit 50 by caucus day, said Darrel Ng, a Thompson spokesman. That schedule belies any notion that Thompson isn't working hard for the nomination, he said.

"I don't know how you can do 50 events in 17 days and not be described as vigorous," Ng said.

On Sunday, Thompson raised his own stakes in Iowa, saying, "I need to come in second" in the caucuses. With Huckabee and Romney firmly established at the top of the field, some pundits joked that Thompson was giving himself an excuse to exit a race he's never loved being in.

Second place will be a challenge, to say the least. The Des Moines Register poll, released Tuesday, had Thompson tied for a distant fourth, behind not only Huckabee and Romney, but Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has campaigned minimally in Iowa, and tied with Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a long shot libertarian, who has a dedicated core of supporters.

Thompson rejects the notion that his campaign is failing, citing other polls that show him closer to the top two. He said he has an "optimistic scenario" in his mind, but seems resigned to the fact that his campaign may not turn out like he once hoped.

"I think we've got momentum. I think we're going to do very well Thursday night. We'll just wait and see," Thompson said. "Nothing that you or I can say, between now and Thursday night, to each other probably is going to change the outcome."

The short, strange trip that is the Thompson campaign is a tale of missed opportunities. He waited for months to declare his candidacy, reinforcing perceptions of a less-than-stellar work ethic, and allowing an initial surge of interest in his candidacy to dissipate.

Since he's been in the race, he's been beset by stumbles and gaffes that have taken him off-message. When he said, Saturday, in Burlington, Iowa, that he was "not particularly interested in running for president," it was a line that cut too closely to the truth — He meant that the process of campaigning held no special appeal, and he wasn't good at hiding it.

On Tuesday, even a four-minute session with reporters featured two cringe-inducing moments. He predicted that he would do well in the caucus "tomorrow," and then cited approving words penned by Des Moines Register columnist "Roger" Yepsen. The caucuses will be held on Thursday, and Yepsen's first name — as any close follower of Iowa politics knows — is David.

For all the hiccups, Thompson showed signs of stirring in recent weeks. On Dec. 12, he turned in a strong debate performance, punctuated by his refusal to raise his hand in answer to the moderator's yes-or-no question — the inspiration for his "hands down" theme.

The debate prompted Yepsen to predict that a Thompson comeback was possible. Thompson also picked up the surprise endorsement of Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who promised to help Thompson pick up voters among anti-immigration hard-liners.

The bus tour was supposed to be Thompson's big push. With his wife, Jeri, often at his side, he seemed more energetic on the stump, and he started drawing bigger crowds.

But then, even as Huckabee solidified his support among evangelical voters, Thompson went, essentially, nowhere. As other campaigns have flooded Iowa's airwaves with ads, Thompson's campaign cash woes left him off of television; instead, he released a 17-minute online video, where he takes his message directly to voters.

On Tuesday, with Jeri and their 4-year-old daughter, Hayden, at his side, Thompson ambled through the veterans home, making small talk. He drew flashes of recognition and plenty of questions about his movie roles and "Law & Order" appearances.

"I watched you twice a day during the Watergate hearings," Bill Betts, a 65-year-old Air Force veteran, told Thompson. Thompson lit up, recalling how he got the Senate counsel job, as a 30-year-old lawyer, through his friend and mentor, former Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn.

Alas, Betts said after meeting Thompson, he's caucusing for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. "He's a nice man," Betts said. "But his and my politics are diametrically opposed."

Alice Hager and her husband, Larry, were equally thrilled to meet Thompson. Alice told him he looks thinner and taller in person, and Thompson spoke at length about how short some actors and politicians are.

Alice pronounced herself a fan.

"He came in so quietly," she said, after he left the room. "So many of these guys think they need to make a splash. We need a quiet strength these days."