Aug. 30, 2007 — -- He was primed to be the summer's big blockbuster and the script was written in advance: A dispirited party finds its great hope in a swashbuckling Southern senator, riding to the rescue to save Republicans from themselves.
But since the heady days of late spring, when the Fred Thompson fever seemed to infect the GOP, Thompson's pre-campaign has been more "Gigli" than "Gone With the Wind."
He's posted lackluster fundraising numbers. He's faced repeated questions about his lobbying career, his years in politics, as well as his position on abortion.
His political speeches have been received coolly, with few grand pronouncements or policy proposals that have lived up to his hype. An announcement rumored for June was pushed back to July, and finally to early September.
As he waited, his potential supporters have grown restless, giving other candidates room to claim the conservative mantle. And, most significantly, his noncampaign has churned through staff like so many extras; Thompson is already on his third spokesman, even though he's had nothing to announce.
Now, with a formal announcement set for Sept. 6, the question for former Tennessee Sen. Thompson looms: Will this ex-movie star see his pilot picked up? Or has the Republican Party changed the channel?
"He's clearly lost much of the momentum that was there in early summer," said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist who is not aligned with any of the presidential campaigns. "The cost of all this waiting is a significant decrease in buzz. The question is whether he can regain his momentum in September."
Thompson advisers now say Thompson will officially declare his intention to seek the White House on Sept.6, and follow that with a tour of early primary voting states. One adviser said he wanted to formally announce his candidacy after the Sept. 5 Republican debate in New Hampshire, but before Sept. 11, when political news will be dominated by the anniversary of the terror attacks and congressional testimony on Iraq.
Thompson's delayed announcement has put more pressure on the former Senator to begin outperforming expectations virtually from the moment his campaign becomes official, said Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee who writes the influential political blog Instapundit.com.
"If he doesn't hit the ground running and look a lot more organized over the next couple of months, his chance of moving to the front will be pretty slim," Reynolds said. "This September is going to be make-or-break."
Jim Mills, a Thompson spokesman, said most voters aren't paying attention to the campaign yet -- and therefore waiting to announce a candidacy has little real-world impact.
"It's a total insiders-vs.-real-people thing in my opinion," Mills said. "Most folks I talk to are still trying to carve out a little vacation time and put their kids back into school before they have to start paying attention to any of this. I actually wish we could come up with a moratorium on all presidential campaigning until at least the final out of the seventh game of the World Series."
Thompson has acknowledged that he has raised his own stakes by waiting so long. He told the Web site Politico.com in an interview this week that he should be judged by the standards of previous campaigns, where declaring the fall before the election was more typical.
"Historically, people don't get in this soon," Thompson said. "The question is about the fact that everybody else is out there and [they] have spent all this time and all this money — and I still clearly have a shot. That ought to answer that question in and of itself."
Indeed, national polls have generally shown Thompson running second in the Republican race, behind former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. A Gallup poll released Aug. 16 had Giuliani at 31 percent and Thompson at 16 percent — ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., both of whom have been essentially running for president since last year.
But state polls in Iowa and New Hampshire haven't been as promising for Thompson — a function, most likely, of his slow start in organizing in those politically active states. And the drifting nature of his pre-campaign has added fuel to long-standing questions about Thompson's work ethic.
"All this disarray, it's more telling for Sen. Thompson than it would be for other candidates, since he doesn't have any executive experience," Ayres said. "He is going to be judged as an executive by the way he organizes and executes his campaign."
He's also given other social conservatives — notably former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — room to build on their candidacies. Huckabee this week blasted Thompson, telling the Christian Broadcasting Network that he has "no substantial record" from his time in the Senate.
"I think a lot of it is that people aren't sure whether they're electing a former senator or Arthur Branch," Huckabee said, referring to the character Thompson played on "Law & Order."
"Anytime a person [who] is on television a lot and a celebrity, there's a sense in which people are given a unique pedestal on which to stand, and it's the celebrity more than it is anything — the attention that comes from that and the sort of gee-whiz factor and, 'I've seen him on TV,'" Huckabee said.
Thompson should know pretty quickly after he gets in whether he's already peaked, Reynolds said. And it's possible that the actor has been playing his role just to build anticipation.
"There's a plausible story where what he's doing is a masterful rope-a-dope," Reynolds said. "But for that to be true, he's going to have to come out fighting."