Fred Thompson’s first day on the stump had all the signs of a big campaign. Two gold and blue buses wrapped with stars and swishes sat outside the Polk County convention center in Iowa. On the side of each was a giant picture of the candidate and his slogan: “United by Our Core Beliefs.” Handmade signs lined the walls of the convention center’s Room 205, where Thompson was scheduled to hold his first event. They suggested swarms of regular folk yearning to show their love. (They’d really been made by a handful of volunteers the night before.) At two tables, stacks of campaign buttons were for sale. A former Miss Iowa sang the national anthem. There was a picture of the candidate with Ronald Reagan.
The press turned out in force. We filled half the room, facing a gigantic structure with pillars and molding that looked like the Doric facade of a downtown bank in a midsized city. Housed between the pillars and faux sandstone were three enormous flat screens, two for video and one with a repeating pattern of the campaign buzzwords Security. Unity. Prosperity. (Yes, a slogan and buzzwords.)
The only thing missing was the crowd. About 200 Iowans showed up to see Thompson. His aides insisted that the number was 400, but they might have been counting the press. A crowd of 200 isn’t embarrassing on a Thursday afternoon in Des Moines, but it isn’t great. It’s really not great if you’re the savior of the Republican Party. There’s not a lot of historical data on support for well-known actors who enter the campaign as the late great hope of a depressed party, but one might have expected to see lines out the door, a shortage of sign-up sheets, a fire marshal warning about overcrowding. The Thompson event had none of these things.
Before the senator arrived, a local radio host ran through Thompson’s résumé. This drew no strong applause. A three-minute campaign video cycled through black and white pictures. They told the story of Thompson’s biography but started with a picture of Obama, Edwards, and Clinton and text that read “The Hunt for Red November.” (Geddit?)
Thompson’s speech was fine, I suppose, but at times it seemed rambling and forced. It included all the standard appeals you would expect a politician to offer a Republican audience—support for local control, lower taxes, and judges who will protect the Constitution. Thompson made no effort to distinguish himself from the other candidates. At applause-line moments, his staffers clapped loudly and whooped, an age-old tactic that succeeded in prompting clapping from the audience.
Afterward, a senior Thompson aide argued to the press that we shouldn’t overread the performance. Fair enough. It was the first event of the campaign, so Thompson should be cut some slack. Up to that point, Thompson and his aides had executed a successful three-part rollout of his announcement through a television ad, an appearance on TheTonight Show, and a Web video. (What? No semaphore?) In 18 hours, 188,000 users visited Thompson’s Web site, more than Romney’s or Giuliani’s total for the entire month of July.
But Thompson’s aides are selling him as the “Great Communicator” candidate: He is supposed to have the ability to sell conservative principles to the public, which will help him to win the nomination and also will make him the only Republican who appeals to moderates and independents in the general election. So for Thompson’s candidacy above all the others, the theater of politics matters, and not just on TV or on the Web.
At Thursday’s second and last event, Thompson seemed to find his groove. Standing on a riser in front of his campaign bus in Council Bluffs, he’d shed his tie and replaced his earlier subdued tone with the folksy-joke-shuckin’-small-town boyishness that is his more natural persona. After the first speech, one of his aides had said he wasn’t a podium-pounding fist-pumper, and yet there he was pumping his fist in the Council Bluffs town square. The crowd was more than twice the size it had been earlier in the day and twice as receptive. If Thompson can learn that fast throughout the campaign, he might have a shot.