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Fred Thompson Needs September

By Reid Wilson

Former Senator Fred Thompson, who kicked off his campaign with appearances on the Tonight Show and with rallies in Iowa to mediocre, at best, reviews, desperately needs a stellar September if his White House bid is anything more than a vanity run.

Thompson has been publicly mulling the race for six months. He has been "testing the waters" for three months. His late start is hardly the only hurdle he faces. Staff departures, sure, won't mean anything to a voter more concerned with Thompson's policies on taxes, the war or health care. But it paints a picture of a campaign that is beginning to build its organization a mere four months (or less) before the Iowa and New Hampshire nominating contests.

It takes more than a television ad to convince voters in early states to caucus or vote for a candidate. Candidates routinely joke that no Iowan will vote for them before they've been in the voter's living room twice. It's more true than people realize, and for Thompson to start meeting early state voters just four months before the primary is to start from the back of the pack. Thompson's "breakneck" first trip through early states, as a real candidate, will take him to ten events in five days. Two events a day, for Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, even Mike Huckabee and John McCain, is an off-day. Thompson does himself no favors by reinforcing the view that he is a lazy campaigner.

Finally, when Thompson's team told reporters they expected to raise $5 million in the month of June, they set expectations high. When the committee failed to meet those expectations, he set a precedent that has repeated itself often: Falling short and disappointing. Thompson's speeches, whether to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in St. Louis two and a half weeks ago, the Midwestern Republican Leadership Conference a few days later, have failed to knock the socks off audiences anywhere. His appearance on Jay Leno's couch on Wednesday night drew criticism from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and others, and his slouchy "I'm running for president" statement seemed shrugged and decidedly less than presidential. Even his first event in Des Moines, to which he attracted about 250 people, according to RCP's Tom Bevan, failed to impress the guy who matters most: The Des Moines Register's David Yepsen called it "underwhelming."

Bottom line: Fred Thompson has failed to meet expectations at virtually every turn. No voter will make their decisions based on those mainstream, Beltway media expectations. But if he fails to meet those expectations by the end of September, Thompson will be relegated to Wesley Clark status - a good idea who never panned out.

He began as what many hoped was the Great Conservative Hope. If he continues to disappoint, his fans will soon search elsewhere for another knight in shining armor. From the second quarter fundraising report he will have to file in early October, a major speech to Michigan Republicans at Mackinaw Island later this month or successful campaign swings through early states, Fred Thompson has to have a stellar September if he doesn't want to be written off as an also-ran.

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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