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Can Fred Thompson Win in 2008?

Can Fred Thompson win over the GOP elite? A TNR debate, Day 3

Editor's Note: This is the third installment in a four-part debate between TNR senior editors Jason Zengerle and Jonathan Chait about whether Fred Thompson has what it takes to be elected president in the 2008. If and when Thomspon enters the race, will he steamroll the competition or fail to live up to the hype? Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Dear Jon,

Well, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the man who glorified ass-welt reporting would take such a dim view of shoe-leather campaigning. But I do think you underestimate the importance of a candidate hitting the hustings--particularly as a way of impressing the party elite.

For one thing, if the rap against Thompson is that he's lazy--as it certainly seems to be--then he would be smart to prove otherwise to the party elite by doing some actual shoe-leather campaigning. After all, I don't think the party elite is going to rally around Thompson as the strongest general election candidate unless it thinks Thompson is going to work to win the general election.

Moreover, in early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, shoe-leather campaigning is crucial to winning the support of the party elite, which, more than anything, wants to be flattered. And there's no better way to flatter the people that matter in those states than by showing up time and time again and telling them how wonderful they are.

Which is why, if I was looking for a sign as to whether Fred Thompson does have a shot at taking the GOP's presidential nomination, I'd keep my eye on what approach he takes to the Iowa Straw Poll in August. As it stands right now, the Iowa Straw Poll is Romney's to lose--and the chances of him actually losing it are exceedingly slim, hence Giuliani and McCain's recent decisions to skip the event. But that doesn't mean Thompson wouldn't stand to gain from participating in the straw poll. And, by participating, I don't mean just showing up in Ames on August 11, but hauling his red pickup out of the garage and driving it around the state pretty much non-stop between his official campaign announcement--now apparently set for July 4--and the straw poll itself.

Of course, I don't really expect Thompson to do that. Sure, he'll probably take the red pickup for a spin or two through the cornfields, but I imagine he'll spend more time behind the keyboard tapping out blog posts than behind the wheel driving across Iowa.

Which will raise an interesting question: Can he appeal to the party elite with such a casual, almost meta approach to the campaign? I agree with you that the GOP tends to be a hierarchical organization in which the elites basically control the grassroots--and, in that respect, appealing to the party elite is crucial for any Republican hoping to win the GOP presidential nomination. But I still don't understand what makes you so certain the elites will decide Thompson is their guy.

I gather in your mind that it's a process of elimination: There's no way the powers that be in the GOP will support Giuliani, McCain, or Romney, so they'll have to go with Thompson. But, while I can understand your certainty about Giuliani and McCain, I'm not so sure about Romney. As Noam Scheiber has already argued at TNR Online, Romney, in fact, is the perfect test case about who really controls the GOP--because, while rank-and-file evangelicals may be suspicious of him due to his Mormon faith, evangelical leaders are quite impressed by him. And one of the reasons they're impressed, it seems, is because Romney has worked overtime to woo them. As Noam wrote:

In addition to [Jay] Sekulow, Romney wowed the likes of Jerry Falwell and Gary Bauer at last October's meet-and-greet with evangelical heavies. He performed a similar feat two weeks earlier in a meeting with the Baptist leadership of South Carolina. Romney won positive reviews this January at a conclave of influential conservatives sometimes called the GOP's Renaissance Weekend. And he has thus far gained the admiration of anti-tax jihadist Grover Norquist, disgraced evangelical huckster Ralph Reed, Focus on the Family honcho James Dobson, and much of the staff of National Review.

Thompson, to be sure, has earned his fair share of hosannas from GOP heavyweights, but so far, they mostly seem excited about the fact that he slapped around Michael Moore. Will Thompson's pithy, 30-second YouTube spots be any match for Romney's sustained--and in-person--charm offensive? I have my doubts.