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Who Said Freddy's Dead?

By Steven Stark

The Republican race is coming into focus. Well, sort of. If John McCain can win the Florida primary on January 29, he'll be the clear front-runner heading into Super Tuesday a week later.

But Florida is hardly a sure thing for McCain. Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney are contesting the state heartily. Plus, Florida is a closed primary, meaning Independents can't participate -- and McCain polls far worse in contests where only Republicans can vote.

If McCain loses in Florida, the Republicans may well be headed to a deadlocked race and convention. And history teaches us that the likeliest candidate to emerge in that scenario is someone like Warren G. Harding: the prototypical, less-than-stellar candidate to which conventions turn when the going gets rough.

This year's Harding? Believe it or not (are you sitting down?), despite the fact that he's withdrawn from the race, is Fred Thompson.

After the smoke has cleared

There's still more myth than fact surrounding the emergence of Harding at the deadlocked 1920 Republican convention. In those days, of course, conventions frequently went many ballots because candidates needed two thirds -- not half -- of the delegates to get nominated. The myth about Harding is that he was totally unknown at the time and emerged from a single deal struck in a smoke-filled room.

In truth, conventions then were nothing but a series of deals struck in smoke-filled rooms, so one or two could hardly secure a nomination. Harding wasn't an unknown, anyway; as an Ohio senator, he had actively campaigned that year in the primaries for his party's nod.

Even so, he was pretty much a failure. The big vote getters that year were General Leonard Wood, California senator Hiram Johnson, and Illinois governor Frank Lowden. In Montana, Harding challenged the front-runners and finished fifth with less than three percent of the vote, and then withdrew from New Jersey because he was already running out of money. He barely held his own state of Ohio as a favorite son. In neighboring Indiana -- deemed a must-win by Harding because he had the support of both senators -- he failed to win a single county and finished a very weak fourth.

In fact, Harding's showings were so atrocious that he had to be continually convinced not to drop out of the race by his advisors. Sound familiar?

But as the convention approached and no one was near the number required for nomination, Harding had two huge advantages over the other candidates, even though they had proven themselves far bigger vote getters. He looked and sounded like a president. And, much more important, no one disliked him nor had any strong reason to oppose him.

That, in fact, is the key to winning a race that deadlocks. And, this year, it is Thompson's ace in the hole.

Think about it: the GOP establishment is scared to death of Huckabee, the outsider who has the allegiance of the evangelicals. The only way he's going to get nominated is if he can win a majority of delegates in the primaries. Ditto for Giuliani: his personal life, social liberalism, and New York background make it unlikely that he can win the GOP nomination any other way than through the primaries (which, unless he can win Florida, is a long shot).

McCain? The GOP establishment and mainstream Republican voters have never really trusted this maverick, either, given his sponsorship of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance legislation, his friendship with Democrats such as John Kerry, and his current stance on immigration. McCain can win over a few stray delegates committed elsewhere. But unless he's close to a majority as the convention approaches, he's unlikely to be the acceptable second choice of most delegates.

Romney? Parts of the GOP establishment (i.e., the National Review crowd and Rush Limbaugh) like him, but he has the highest negatives of any candidate in the race. Evangelicals don't trust him, perhaps unfairly. And the other candidates can't stand him, which, if a deadlock should occur, will hardly leave him the likely beneficiary of any efforts they might make on someone else's behalf.

That leaves Fred.

Yes, he's been a reluctant suitor. And, yes, he didn't prove himself to be a terrific candidate. But he has always been the establishment's choice. The flip side of his failure to articulate much of a platform is that he hasn't really alienated anybody. He certainly looks like a president, so much so that he's played two in the movies. And he's been vetted: though there are no shining accomplishments, there are also no skeletons in the closet (which actually puts him one up on Harding).

It would be absurd to suggest that Fred's failure to do well was part of some grand strategy. But this year, it would be equally absurd to write him off just because he was a disappointing candidate. When conventions deadlock, history teaches us that yesterday's disappointments become tomorrow's stars. If McCain can't stampede to the nomination and Super Tuesday doesn't produce another clear front-runner, we may not have heard the last of Fred, even if he doesn't believe it himself.

Boston Phoenix

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