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Fred Has Waited Too Long

By Reid Wilson

Fred Thompson's window of opportunity could hardly have been wider. His opponents were fatally flawed in the eyes of the socially conservative Republican base; he's well-known, can raise money, and speaks language that both Republicans and independents leaning right can embrace. Even thinking of entering the race put him above double digits in polls.

But, thanks to a number of missteps and opportunities his pseudo-campaign has failed to capitalize on, Thompson's window is now closed, making him more likely to go the way of Tommy Thompson than win the nomination.

The Law & Order star, running a "testing the waters" committee, raised approximately $3.46 million in June after launching June 4th. The campaign's goal was $5 million raised in the same period. Missed expectations are not enough to doom a campaign, but Thompson's media team did little to dampen expectations when they released the report on the last day of July, even though they had to know for weeks that the numbers were lower than expected.

The campaign has also been beset by staff turnover, as controversy surrounding Jeri Thompson's involvement in the campaign has leaked into the media. Thompson's first manager in waiting, Tom Collamore, was dumped after just over a month. Campaign aides said former Sen. Spencer Abraham and a prominent Florida Republican, Randy Enwright, would take over. Then, just weeks later, Thompson went to his former advisor Bill Lacy to run the race. The campaign has also been on the verge of becoming official for months. The latest reports have an announcement pushed back to just after Labor Day. When Thompson needs the media to be penning stories about his conservative credentials, reporters are content to focus on staff departures and timing questions.

Then there is the question of those conservative credentials. Recent reports have suggested Thompson lobbied for a pro-choice group before he served in the Senate. And his record on campaign finance reform isn't exactly what conservatives are looking for: We heard a rival campaign refer to the "McCain-Feingold-Thompson" bill recently. Those two strikes seemingly only need one more to make Thompson as unacceptable to the base as the other top candidates.

Finally, other campaigns aren't waiting around to hear whether Thompson is in or out. Mitt Romney is beginning to act like a front-runner, while Rudy Giuliani barely mentions Thompson. And the second tier may be creeping up on him: After a strong showing at the Iowa Straw Poll, it is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at whom conservatives are taking another look. While Huckabee has a smaller chance than Thompson of winning, Thompson can't afford to have others basking in what was supposed to be his spotlight. Had Thompson competed at the Straw Poll and finished second, Huckabee may have been at home in Little Rock, out of the race by now.

Fred Thompson had his chance to make a splashy entrance into the race. In fact, he has had many chances to do something to impress political watchers and his fans on the right. Time and again, though, he has missed those opportunities. Instead of managing expectations and raising impressive sums, his campaign reported disappointingly low numbers. Instead of hiring a staff and sticking with it, his campaign has already been beset by turnover. Instead of serving as the conservatives' best hope, they are forced to make excuses as to why his positions are acceptable to them.

Every day he remains out of the race is another day of organizing and winning support lost. At some point, time simply runs out. Thompson has simply waited too long to take advantage of the good will, good fortune and good position that awaited him once he entered the race.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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