Fred Drift

The muddled progress of the late-breaking candidate.

Fred Thompson

Fred Thompson has it all figured out. Speaking to a group of female business leaders in Florida, he said, “I’m kind of a laid-back guy, but I’ve been hardworking and successful for a long, long time. I don’t have to prove myself to anybody. I’ve done pretty well being me. And me is all they’re going to get.”

This is either refreshing or hubris. It could be a stab at turning laziness into a virtue or an irritated refusal to modify a strategy founded on the faulty notion that a candidate can win without months of grueling hustle. Or maybe Thompson just has a quality voters find attractive in presidential candidates: He knows his own mind.

There have been scattered signs to support the more favorable thesis. Thompson wasn’t afraid to talk about reducing the growth of Social Security benefits even in retiree-rich Florida. When asked about the Terry Schiavo controversy/debacle, he didn’t pander to social conservatives, even though he’s desperately courting them. He said government had no business meddling in whether her life support stayed on. This reminded me of his kiss-off to Dr. James Dobson, the radio host who diagnosed Thompson as “un-Christian” even though he’d never met the man. When Thompson was asked whether he would meet with Dobson in an effort to win him over, the candidate said he’d be happy to receive an apology from the evangelical leader but that he wasn’t going to ask for one. “I’m not going to dance to anyone’s tune” were his words.

Good for Fred. But there are limits to the benefit of going your own way. Knowing your own mind is great on stances about policy. There are some requirements of campaigning, however, that can’t be ignored—like the campaigning part. Thompson’s strategy of cool detachment—an event here, an event there, no day too taxing, and a couple days off—is not going very well in some early states that are important for the nomination.

While reporting on Mitt Romney’s campaign last week, I spent a lot of time talking to Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire, most of them unaffiliated voters or county-party chairmen who are staying neutral. Among them, Thompson has gotten good reviews over the last several months, even after his somewhat-underwhelming debut. He has been mentioned as a real favorite, particularly among social conservatives who liked Mike Huckabee but thought Thompson was more electable. But this week, Thompson is slipping. Voters seem more irritated with his sluggish demeanor, and meanwhile, Huckabee seems on the rise after his strong showing at the Values Voter conference and in the recent GOP debate. “I don’t think Fred is going to be the guy,” says Iowa’s Sioux County GOP Chairman Mark Lundberg. “What support there was for Thompson is less than before he ran.” Explaining the new enthusiasm for Huckabee in Iowa’s O’Brien County, County Chairman Kelly O’Brien explains, “I think the conservatives have just been waiting to see who they should coalesce behind. I thought it would have been Fred Thompson, but he may be a disappointment.”

In New Hampshire, the picture is a little brighter for Thompson—but only a little. He is doing well enough in state polls to make the Giuliani campaign stop ignoring him. They’ve started attacking his record the way they used to go after Mitt Romney. But Thompson has a lot of catch-up work to do in the state. It’s not just the debate he skipped or the trip he canceled recently or that he may not file his presidential paperwork in person. He’s only got a small footprint in the state and has been long delayed in improving his outreach. Two different Republicans involved in New Hampshire politics told me that after they gave the campaign names of operatives who hadn’t signed on with anyone else, the Thompson team failed to follow up. Tuesday, John McCain’s campaign picked off one activist who had been with Thompson. “I haven’t come across anyone who has said, ‘Wow, that Fred Thompson!’ after seeing him,” says Republican state Rep. Fran Wendelboe.

My interviews don’t represent a scientific sample, of course, but a door feels like it’s closing for Thompson, even after his improved second debate performance Sunday. Thompson says the criticism is only coming from the Beltway chattering class and he’ll ignore it (except, presumably, for the pundits working for him). I was prepared to think regular people had a more generous view of his slow start for awhile, but the people I talked to don’t live in Washington. They live where the voting is going to take place. They’re buzzing about Huckabee, not Thompson, and what they are saying about Thompson doesn’t sound good for him.