MISSING: Fred Thompson

When I heard Fred Thompson had been endorsed by right-to-life groups in Wisconsin and South Carolina , it was like hearing about an old high-school classmate. Oh yeah, Fred—how the hell is that guy?

Not so good, apparently. When he has appeared in headlines over the past week or two, it’s mostly been to attack Mike Huckabee. He issued a sourpuss statement dinging Huckabee for making jokes, calling him a “court jester.” (Something of which Thompson is far from innocent.) He slammed Huck for not knowing about the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. But Thompson’s fusillade hasn’t slowed the Arkansas governor’s ascent. If anything, Thompson has been a victim of the Huckabee surge. Fred has slipped to fourth place in national polls; in his best state, South Carolina, he’s tied for second. 

Meanwhile, his campaign schedule remains a few lunges short of a workout . (As his spokeswoman Karen Hanretty brilliantly put it last month, “Fred will never rush to war because Fred doesn’t rush to anything.”)

But the main problem seems to be that Thompson isn’t a high-concept candidate. In other words, you can’t sum up in a few words what he represents. Or you can, but it’s not as catchy a sell as the other candidates. Just look:

Mitt Romney: Mormonism; morals; business acumen
Rudy Giuliani: Fixed New York; tough on terror
Mike Huckabee: Baptist minister; funny; social conservative
John McCain: Former POW; straight talk; Iraq war

Thompson, on the other hand, isn’t so easily reduced. He doesn’t have a set of foundational characteristics to fall back on when he needs to remind the press he exists. It could have been his acting career, but he chooses not to emphasize that. He opposes abortion, but he doesn’t support a “human life” amendment. He opposes gay marriage, but doesn’t support a federal marriage amendment. He’s a true fiscal conservative, but somehow the Club For Growth hasn’t rocketed his candidacy to the front. The one descriptor that seems to stick— lazy —doesn’t do him any favors. In this frenetic, sound-bite-friendly race, traditional conservatism isn’t enough. It’s December already, and Fred Thompson still needs a hook.

With Chadwick Matlin. Photo illustration by Andy Bouve.