Oskaloosa, Iowa--This is what a disaster looks like: Fred Thompson, the former future "savior" of the Republican Party, looking droopy-eyed and jowly in a black leather jacket and tan ten-gallon hat, wandering like some lonesome lost cowboy through the snows of southeastern Iowa in search of voters--and not finding many.
A few minutes earlier, the former U.S. Senator, "Law and Order" star, and would-be conservative hero had emerged from the Smokey Row coffeehouse, where, in his endless search for the only kind of media he can afford--free--he'd sat down with the local newspaper. Otherwise, Smokey Row held at most two dozen largely disinterested patrons. Thompson famously loathes the grip-and-grin side of politics and smiled wanly through his chit-chats. As he staged a handshake with one woman, the photographer had called out, "Look at each other!" Thompson couldn't resist mocking the artificiality of the forced smiling eye contact. "That's the hardest thing in the world to do," he chuckled.
At least someone cared enough to get her picture taken with him. Many of the folks in the quiet coffeehouse ignored Thompson, more interested in their laptops or newspapers than a presidential candidate. A pair of enthusiastic teenagers did approach him on his way out, however. "It's good to be a young man," the often depleted-looking actor-lobbyist told them wistfully. Yet the moment deflated when one of the teens confessed that he's not an Iowa resident.
Perhaps defensive about the wan crowd at the Smokey Row, Thompson's press secretary took care to note that this visit was an unannounced drop-by; nothing should be read into the head count. And in fairness, Thompson's visits like this one to small-town main streets are as much about local media buzz as they are about converting individual voters. Still, it seemed a poor use of the precious little time Thompson has left to salvage his campaign. Currently embarked on a 50-stop statewide bus tour--with the unwieldy moniker of "The Clear Conservative Choice: Hands Down!" emblazoned across the vehicle--Thompson has staked everything on finishing a strong third here in Iowa. (He's given up on New Hampshire entirely, and won't return there until after Iowa's January 3rd caucuses.) This past week, Thompson had to mount a tragic online fundraising appeal in which he begged supporters to help him scrape up the cash--$248,846, to be precise--that will allow him to buy one measly ad on the Iowa airwaves. A week earlier, by contrast, the flaky libertarian Ron Paul had raised $4 million in one day.
Thompson's (quite defensible) argument that he's the only Republican candidate who has been a consistent social and economic conservative hasn't budged him above 12 percent or so in the Iowa polls. That's good enough for fourth place at the moment. But John McCain is now making a late run here, and Paul is mounting a serious television advertising campaign. Finishing fourth--or possibly even fifth--might push Thompson out of the race (that some people think he's wanted to exit for many weeks now) long before he can reach his relative stronghold of South Carolina.
After leaving the coffeehouse, Thompson trudged his way through a snow-covered city park, as aides pointed out patches of snow and ice to prevent a symbolically catastrophic wipeout. He arrived at his next stop, at the town's county courthouse, on his feet, but couldn't summon much enthusiasm. Escorted by the county supervisor, Willie Van Weelden, Thompson popped into a series of dreary administrative offices staffed by a homogenous and somewhat befuddled-looking crew of middle-aged ladies. In the county tax office Thompson greeted precisely one worker. "This lady takes all the property tax money!" Van Wheelen exclaimed with the enthusiasm only a county worker could muster. "Is that right?" Thompson replied, sounding as impassive as he surely was. In the neighboring registrar's office, Thompson delivered a quick round of hellos and then cast a puzzled glance at a shaggy-haired boy scribbling at a table under a sign: "Drivers' Test In Progress." As if that were the final straw, Fred finally made a break for it back through the winter cold and into the warm comfort of his massive bus.
Jeri Thompson isn't with her husband in Iowa this week, but perhaps she should be; his much-discussed young wife has proven herself to be a more adept campaigner throughout the campaign. In a memorable moment at a fire station last week, Jeri charmingly donned a fire captain's helmet after Fred--perhaps fearing an embarrassing photo, but looking like a stick in the mud--refused to put one on. She also recently toured South Carolina on her own, and has blitzed conservative talk-radio shows, sometimes appearing on several in a day. It's enough to make some people wonder whether Fred Thompson's candidacy won't seem, in hindsight, like a platform for Jeri Thompson's future ambitions. (Although her instincts still aren't perfect: One Iowan recounted the way Jeri appeared wildly overdressed, in a beret and expensive dress, at a recent downscale political gathering.) Indeed, the more Thompson campaigns at low octane, the more plausible the theory that Jeri pushed him into running becomes. But why did he flop so badly once he did run? Where to start? He got in too late, didn't sound prepared, lacked the movie-star presence people expected, and suffered from staff turmoil (widely attributed to Jeri). Above all, Thompson never offered a clear rationale for his candidacy--a curious defect for a star contender, unless you consider what's become increasingly clear of late: On some level, the guy never really seemed to want it.
That much was obvious at a town hall forum later that day in nearby Ottumwa. At a time when other candidates are pulling in several hundred voters per stop, at most 75 voters turned out (albeit on a very snowy day) to hear him. Thompson put in a soporific performance made worse by an over-warm room and a noisy child in the audience. And echoing a moment famously recounted on the front page of the New York Times several weeks ago, Thompson had to coax enthusiasm out of his audience. Speaking of the distinction between legal and illegal immigration Thompson said, "We need to be a nation of high fences and wide gates." A man in the audience called out in agreement. "You like that?" Thompson asked hopefully. "Alright," he continued, looking for some momentum. "Can I get a round of applause?" A few long seconds later, the crowd obliged.
After Thompson spoke, his state chairman, the Iowa Congressman Steve King, bounded to the back of the room to greet voters. "How ya doin?" he eagerly asked one woman in her forties. "We're having a ball out here! Where is your head and where is your heart?"
The woman paused. "Probably Huckabee," she said apologetically. Meanwhile, Thompson shook only a quick batch of hands and disappeared from the room within about three minutes.
Out in the hallway stood three campaign workers holding clipboards. "Would you like to sign up to caucus for Fred?" they called to the departing voters. Few stopped.
"That's it. The room's empty," one worker reported back to the others. I could see the signup sheets from over their shoulders. One had two names recorded on it, another just a single name. The third was entirely empty. And so this is the way the savior's campaign ends--not with a bang, but with an empty signup sheet.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor for The New Republic.