WASHINGTON – The unsettled state of the Republican presidential race can be illustrated in the Tale of the Two Thompsons.
Tommy Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin and secretary of health and human services in President Bush’s first term, jumped into the race last week, claiming to be the “reliable conservative” voters want.
Thompson has little money and, at this point, no standing in the national polls. But for months, he has been spending every weekend in Iowa, and he says his goal is to win the straw vote that will draw several thousand Republicans to Ames, Iowa, on Aug. 11 for the state convention.
In 1995, when Bob Dole was running and wanted to make his mark in the straw vote, so many of his fellow-Kansans came to Ames that it looked like Wichita and Topeka had been depopulated. Thompson insists he will not be busing voters in from Waukesha, Racine and Kenosha, but will be able to recruit enough Iowans to prevail.
Such is the vulnerability of the supposed front-runners that Thompson is convinced that winning this nonbinding, totally symbolic straw vote will by itself make him a serious contender.
That dream looks less implausible when you consider the case of Fred Thompson – no kin. He is the former senator from Tennessee who retired from politics in 2002 to resume a career as a movie and TV actor that was more lucrative and, apparently, less boring. Now, his restless spirit is urging him back into politics. And with no more behind him than the popularity of his role on “Law &Order” and a hint to Fox News’ Chris Wallace that he might be interested in the White House, this Thompson has vaulted into third place in the Republican polls.
He has yet to announce his candidacy, raise his first dollar or build the semblance of an organization, but he has lapped Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who has been running for months and who leads all other Republicans in fundraising.
The only two candidates who outpace Fred Thompson in these early polls are Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, and Arizona Sen. John McCain. And both of them, especially McCain, have seen their numbers erode.
Behind all four of them are a bunch of others, including Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, Jim Gilmore, the former governor of Virginia, and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, all of whom are vying for the same “reliable conservative” slot that Tommy Thompson covets.
And then there are two House members, trying to break the historical jinx on candidates who try to vault from the House to the White House – Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Tom Tancredo of Colorado. Both of them voice the antagonism to immigration across the Southern border that separates much of the Republican Party base from President Bush. And their presence in the early debates assures that the divisive issue of immigration will not be one the other candidates can duck.
This is not just a confusing picture for Republicans but a worrisome one. The only candidates with established national names, McCain and Giuliani, have five marriages between them and probably a dozen issues that are controversial for important Republican constituencies.
Romney, an excellent campaigner and fundraiser, with an exemplary private life, has endured what might be called a lengthy period of political adolescence as he tries to make the awkward transition from being a Massachusetts-style moderate Republican to the kind who can run to the right of Giuliani and McCain.
He also faces an ugly anti-Mormon bias that is fanned by some religious bigots and tolerated in silence by too many others.
The weakness at the top creates an opening for Fred Thompson – a man who made little impact on the Senate and left it voluntarily when he could easily have been re-elected. He is an odd choice for conservatives, since he was one of the few senators who supported McCain over Bush in 2000 and one of the few Republicans who voted enthusiastically for the McCain-Feingold bill limiting campaign contributions. His celebrity as a TV prosecutor outweighs all of that, at least in some eyes.
As for Tommy Thompson, his credentials include pioneering work as a governor on welfare reform, health care, school choice and other domestic issues. But none of that counts as much for him as turning out bodies for the Ames straw vote.
What a system! What a party!
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.