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By Jay Cost

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Thompson Goes Electric...

Residents of the Windy City, and football enthusiasts generally, are probably quite familiar with the phrase "Good Rex, Bad Rex." The phrase really captured the essence of the 2006 Chicago Bears. Their quarterback, Rex Grossman, would occassionally show signs of absolute football brilliance. Other times? Eh...not so much. The consensus in Chicago this year is that Good Rex is gone. Bad Rex has been replaced with Brian Griese. But the "Good Rex, Bad Rex" phrase has been on my mind lately. I usually think of it whenever I think about Fred Thompson.

For the longest time, I have been of two minds when it comes to Fred Thompson's campaign. Collectively, I think the political world is, too. Compare John Dickerson's analysis of Thompson with Michael Crowley's. Both are looking at the same characteristics - and yet they come out with different conclusions.

I think that the confusion over the Thompson campaign is that what works about it is very similar to what does not work. So, at first inspection, the lines are blurry - and you can't quite tell if this campaign is genius or disastrous. Upon closer inspection, I think that there are some lines to distinguish - and we can make some sense about this very peculiar presidential campaign.

So, today's column will review what I think works about the Thompson campaign. Monday's will review what is not working. Today's column is entitled "Thompson Goes Electric..." Monday's is entitled "...Without The Band."

***

Fred Thompson's candidacy has been widely panned by the press, but recent reports indicate that the candidate has acquired a little traction.

The first item comes from the Politico, which reported last Saturday:

Fred Thompson may have failed to impress Beltway insiders when he finally launched his run for the White House last month, but he is winning over a critical segment of the Republican coalition, new polling suggests.

Conservative Christians favor Thompson by a 10-point margin over his closest rival, Rudy Giuliani.

It's a sharp reversal for Giuliani. The putative GOP front-runner had been winning social conservative backing despite his history of support for abortion rights and gay rights.

Thompson has changed that.

Giuliani leads Thompson 29 percent to 21 percent among Republicans generally, the new national CBS News poll suggests.

But weekly Republican churchgoers back Thompson by a margin of 29 percent to 19 percent for Giuliani -- roughly tying John McCain.

Next, Bloomberg reported last Friday:

Fred Thompson hasn't dazzled many political professionals with his early stump appearances, yet when it comes to building a base of small campaign donors he's showing the potential to keep pace with better-funded rivals.

Thompson, 65, a former Tennessee senator who's running for the Republican nomination as a Ronald Reagan-style populist, tapped 74,217 individuals for an average gift of $125 between July 1 and Sept. 30, the first fundraising quarter of his presidential bid.

That's more than double the contributors Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani signed up during their first reporting periods. If Thompson keeps adding donors at this clip, he may be competitive in early primaries even though he trails Giuliani and Romney in cash raised.

Both of these stories beg the question: how is Fred Thompson doing well, given that he has not impressed "political professionals" and "Beltway insiders?"

I think that the answer has to do with a subject I have been discussing for the last few weeks. I have argued that there are two campaigns. On the one hand, there is the perpetual campaign - which is reducible to each party's attempts to win the daily news cycle. On the other hand, there is what I have been calling the real campaign. This is the quest for votes during the few weeks before Election Day.

The value of the perpetual campagin is that it sets the agenda for the real campaign. It is a show put on by candidates for the benefit of leaders of political constituencies, donors, and media personalities. Doing well in the perpetual campaign gets you noticed, and therefore gets you a spot in the real thing. The trouble with the press is that it treats the perpetual campaign as an end. It is not. Instead, it is a means to an end - namely, a shot to win the voters over. Candidates who excel in the perpetual campaign get the money and the attention that is necessary to make appeals to the voters during the real campaign.

The media is the arbiter of the perpetual campaign. This is for good reason. Candidates like to keep the cost of the perpetual campaign low. The media offers advertisement to them - through news coverage, talk shows, debates, and so forth - that costs candidates no money. But, as nothing in life is free, the candidates pay a price. Everything they say and do is analyzed and categorized by the talking heads. So, the heads set the rules of the perpetual campaign. They tell us who does well and who does poorly, and why.

According to the heads, Thompson has done poorly because he is not doing what he is supposed to be doing. He is breaking too many of the rules. A case in point is Dick Morris's rant from last month about all of the problems with Fred Thompson.

•He skipped and is skipping the first two debates of his presidential candidacy and said he was looking forward to attending the Oct. 14 New Hampshire debate -- the one that was cancelled weeks ago;

•He is taking this week off from presidential campaigning;

•He does not know enough about the details of the Terry Schiavo case to comment.;

•He is also unfamiliar with the proposal to lower soaring insurance premiums Floridians must pay for home storm coverage since the hurricanes

These are the sorts of sins that leave the media arbiters cold. These are their rules. And he is breaking them. In the perpetual campaign - you are supposed to campaign non-stop. You are supposed to remember all of the minutiae of your campaign schedule. You are supposed to know the details of symbolic events that happened over a year ago. You are supposed to know the specifics of local political issues so you can pander to the residents. Those are the rules. Thompson isn't following them.

And yet, he seems to have some real signs of viability. How is that possible?

Let's approach this indirectly. Consider the Thompson organization. It has some top notch people either directly or indirectly affiliated with it. Meanwhile, Thompson himself is a good actor. He does not have much range - but, so long as the character is within his range, he plays it convincingly. And a presidential candidate is definitely within his range.

So, he has the talent. And he has the brain trust. But he is still not dazzling the arbiters. In light of this, I would suggest that Thompson's missteps might be intentional. His rule breaking has been purposive because he thinks it can get him the traction he seems to be getting.

But that does not make any sense. There are rules. The rules need to be followed. If they are not followed - punishments will be doled out and you will be sorry. You'll end up like John McCain - whose ticket to the real campaign was invalidated back in July due to his anemic fundraising and poor money management.

Well - maybe. But maybe not.

There are two types of rules in the world. On the one hand, there are real rules. These are the rules that you need to follow, or you will be in big trouble. Stay in school is one of them. You can't do much without a high school diploma - so that is a real rule. On the other hand, there are fake rules. These are rules that most people follow because they think there are negative consequences for disobedience, but actually there are not. In fact, the ones who break the fake rules are often celebrated as trail blazers.

Bob Dylan comes to my mind when I think of those who break the fake rules. In the mid-60s, there was this rule that songs could only be three minutes long, and they had to have three verses and a chorus. But Dylan did these six minute songs that had five plus verses and no chorus. And whose ears don't perk up today when they hear the first bars of "Subterranean Homesick Blues?" Another rule said that folkies could not play rock. That just did not happen. But Dylan hired Levon and the Hawks, and went electric. At first, he was booed everywhere he went (except in the South). Eight years later he went on tour with the exact same group - now called the Band - and received 6 million ticket requests for 600,000 seats.

If you have the intelligence to see which rules are real and which are fake, the respectfulness to follow the real rules, and the guts to break the fake rules - you can get ahead in this world. In fact, people will love you for breaking the fake rules.

I think Thompson might be breaking what really are fake rules. As I mentioned above - the perpetual campaign is only a means to the real campaign. You play the game by the rules of the media to earn your way into the real contest. But there may be other ways to get to the real campaign. If there are, the media's rules are indeed fake. There are no consequences to breaking them. If you find another way into the real campaign, you can break them all you like.

This is what Thompson seems to be doing. In fact, I think Thompson and his campaign have assessed that breaking these media rules will actually help him get to the real campaign. They might be right. Two benefits seem to be accruing to Thompson.

First, breaking the rules has earned him notice. This is ironic, as most candidates follow the rules of the perpetual campaign for precisely this reason. They do a lot of stump speeches to get on the evening news. They do the Sunday morning show circuit. They take any opportunity to appear on Hardball that they can get. And so on. But not Thompson. So, is the media ignoring him? Hardly! Instead, his rule breaking has earned him more attention. My favorite example of this so far was Thompson's declaration of his candidacy. The fact that he announced his candidacy on Jay Leno was taken as rule breaking. But consider the net result. Thompson announced on Leno - and got the Leno audience. And then the next day, all the talking heads did was talk about Thompson! Far from being punished, Thompson was rewarded for his defiance.

But much more importantl, I think Thompson has assessed that breaking these rules could win him support. People outside the Beltway, whose daily lives are not regimented by the news cycle, appreciate that the perpetual campaign has reached a point of asininity. Accordingly, a candidate could win supporters over in the real campaign by claiming that he ignored all of these rules, which essentially mandate twenty-two months of nonstop campaigning. This is a twist on running against Washington. It is running against the Washington press corps. A Republican candidate can do this all the more. After all, the perpetual campaign is mediated by the press, which conservatives loathe. Instead of saying that he broke the media's rules, a candidate instead can say that he broke the Drive By Media's rules. That is a great way to win conservatives over: run against the Drive By's.

I think that Thompson is taking a calculated risk here. As somebody who thinks that the rules of the media's prepetual campaign are inefficient and irresponsible (how much time are we going to spend talking about a damned haircut?), it is one that I admire. He is betting that all of the rules of the perpetual campaign, and the praise one earns from the talking heads for following those rules, is just one way to get to the real campaign. He is betting that there is another way - instead of following all of those rules, he can thumb his nose at them.

-Jay Cost