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Thompson's One Man Show

By Tom Bevan

Last week Fred Thompson was speaking to a crowd of close to three hundred people at the Music Man Square in Mason City, Iowa, explaining how he accidentally fell into a movie career. In the early 1980s Hollywood producers came to Tennessee to make a film about a famous case Thompson had handled as a young lawyer. "They asked me to play myself," Thompson told the audience in his folksy, Southern drawl, "and I said, well, they can't tell me I'm doing it wrong - although they still did from time to time."

The line always gets a big laugh, but it's also a fitting description of the quest he's on now. Thompson has been more or less drafted into running for President, and he's campaigning for the job in the same way he landed his first movie role: by playing himself.

Whether this will take him all the way to the Republican nomination remains to be seen, but if the first couple of days of campaigning are any indication, being himself just might be enough. Thompson's two biggest assets are his "likability" and his high name identification, both of which are based to a large degree on his role in one of the highest-rated shows on television over the last four and a half years.

But Thompson's fame is double edged. For some it creates unreasonably high expectations of meeting him in person -- expectations Thompson inevitably fails to meet. In public, the most conspicuous thing about him is his size (6'5"), and for a legitimate "movie star" he generates significantly less wattage at events than even Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

For others, however, Thompson's lack of pretense is a draw in itself. Despite his fame, Thompson's easy going demeanor makes him seem "approachable" and "down to earth" to voters - a very valuable perception for candidates to project in states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

On the stump, Thompson's speeches resemble a one-act play with three scenes: in Scene One Thompson tells of his rise from humble beginnings on a farm in Lawrenceburg to accomplished lawyer, actor and statesman. In Scene Two, Thompson lays out his reasons for running, with a heavy focus on national security and the global war against Islamic fascism. And in Scene Three, Thompson discusses the "first principles" that he says have guided and will continue to guide his decision making on policy matters.

This last scene is where Thompson really sets himself apart from the current field of Republican candidates - especially his top tier competitors, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. Thompson describes his "first principles" as based upon "the wisdom of the ages" and also the notion that "in this changing world there are some things that just don't change."

Thompson punctuates this point by telling audiences in his famous honey-smoked baritone, "The Declaration of Independence tells us that our rights are granted by God, not government." It is always one of the biggest applause lines of the speech.

From there Thompson launches into his belief in federalism, characterized by limited government, lower taxes, and more individual freedom. "A government that is big enough to do everything for you is powerful enough to take everything away from you," Thompson warns, adding that he believes the power of the federal government should be weakened in many areas but still remain strong enough to perform its primary function of protecting the public. All of this draws approving head nods and applause from those who've come out to see him.

Perhaps because of incredibly high expectations, Thompson's big show opened to mixed reviews in Des Moines last Thursday. Many, including David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register, characterized his debut as "underwhelming." By the following afternoon, however, Thompson had rebounded with two solid performances and it appeared, ironically enough, as if the only event at which Thompson fell flat was the one most like a Hollywood set with the formal backdrop and the Presidential podium. It turns out Thompson's show plays much better on the road where its folksy star can improvise in more informal settings.

The other good news for Thompson is that right now his show is the only new one around, while the other candidates have long since gone into reruns.

Just after Thompson finished speaking in Mason City, I asked a group of people attending the event whether they felt Thompson waited too long to run and "missed his moment." Not a single one felt he had, and one man opined that the problem wasn't that Thompson had gotten in too late but that the other candidates had gotten in too early. "We're bored to death of those guys," the man said, while the others nodded in agreement.

Thompson may be playing catch up from a fundraising and organization standpoint, but as far as voters are concerned there is plenty of room for - and interest in - adding another show to the Republican line up. We'll know soon enough whether Thompson can keep them tuned in.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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