By Political Director
NBC News
updated 3/14/2007 6:04:58 PM ET 2007-03-14T22:04:58
ANALYSIS

Just how unstable is the GOP presidential field? So unstable that a retired senator who hasn't been in office in nearly six years can show a tiny bit of interest and literally shake up the race overnight.

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Rumors of a Fred Thompson candidacy have been circulating for months, though many of us didn't put a lot of stock into them because he seemed to do nothing to grow the speculation. That is, he did nothing until this week.

Thompson's now public interest is bad news for all three frontrunners, but specifically the two candidates who have been vying for conservative base love -- Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney.

Since this '08 campaign began in earnest, both primary fields have had the same dynamic: one institutional frontrunner (John McCain for the Republicans and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats) with a handful of challengers seeking to become the chief alternative to the institutional leader.

The Democratic campaign is, so far, staying on script with Clinton maintaining her frontrunner status and Barack Obama and John Edwards establishing themselves as the frontrunners in the anti-Hillary primary.

New heir apparent?
The Republican side is still very fluid and until this week, it was on the verge of producing a new frontrunner in Giuliani.

But as many know, there's been a certain level of discomfort among key conservative constituencies with not just McCain, but Giuliani and Romney as well.

Of the two anti-McCain frontrunners, Giuliani appeared to be making the most progress. He was proving to be someone who could be very strong in a general election and starting to make conservatives more comfortable with him on the social front by talking up the idea of appointing "strict constructionist" judges. The phrase "strict constructionist," of course, is a key code phrase for the pro-life community. 

And Giuliani’s poll position has only been getting stronger of late – so strong, in fact, that one could sense a shift in the thinking of the political elite that perhaps it was time to crown Giuliani with McCain’s frontrunner crown.

But doubts remain about Giuliani. The recent revelation that he has an uneasy relationship with his college-age son plays into an old stereotype of Rudy regarding his personal life. In a vacuum, the fact that a son isn't crazy about a step-parent isn't exactly breaking news. But because Rudy has a history of family issues, it could become a bigger problem for him.

So perhaps it is no coincidence that within a week of renewed doubts about Giuliani's personal life, Thompson chimed in with interest in running.

Clearly, Thompson's trial balloon was designed to see how easy it would be for him to assemble a campaign team and raise the necessary money. One true early test for Thompson will be to find out how many Giuliani and Romney folks reach out to him.

Campaign work ethic in questions
What will be interesting to watch in the next few weeks is what negative info about Thompson begins to circulate. The worst negative we've heard has to do with his campaign work ethic. Simply put: he has a reputation for being a little lazy when it comes to playing the political game. He's not alone; Quite a few presidential wannabes never succeed because they just don't want to have to make those 100/day fundraising calls or sneak in that extra campaign stop at the end of the day.

Thompson's political career has come fairly easy for him. His initial Senate race against Democrat Jim Cooper was supposed to be competitive but wound up not. His subsequent re-elections were cakewalks.

His personal life issues (money and family in particular) were reasons why he decided to give up life as a senator.  However, there’s not an ambitious politician in American history that would say no to a nomination that they believed could be handed to them. And Thompson is clearly getting the kind of advice right now that tells him he might have an easier time getting this nomination by swooping in late and essentially become coronated.

Of course, Thompson could simply be trying to raise his profile a bit so that he can become the next Paul Harvey. But something tells me Thompson is not the type of guy to play games like this. By acknowledging his interest, it tells me he’s truly exploring the idea. Unlike a Chuck Hagel, Thompson isn’t someone who has a history that will get him confused with Hamlet. 

Thompson's helping hand
As for the rest of the Republican field, the candidate who might be most helped by Thompson’s interest is, believe it or not, John McCain.  Giuliani and Romney have only been getting their early traction thanks to the contrasts they’ve been drawing to McCain. If those contrasts haven’t been enough to quell talk of a new candidate in the race, then isn’t McCain the biggest beneficiary in the short term?. And if Thompson’s decision process lingers through the summer and ends up being a no-go, then that may help McCain even more. Thompson endorsed McCain in ’00 and there isn’t much out there indicating that the two still aren’t friends.  So simply for slowing down the momentum that Giuliani -- and Romney, to a lesser extent -- were getting of late, McCain’s folks are probably the most pleased by this Thompson distraction.

For as much as McCain is helped right now by Thompson, the interest Republicans are showing for the former Tennessee senator isn’t helpful to the Republican Party as a whole, particularly if Thompson decides not to run. And that’s the danger with a trial balloon this late. It’s what happened in the fall of ’95, when Republicans were desperate to find an alternative to Bob Dole and were trying to coax Colin Powell into the race.  Powell got close to running but decided against it, leaving the perception that the Republican field in place was weak. And that became a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Republicans in the ’96 presidential. The best thing to happen for the GOP this cycle is for Thompson to run because win or lose, his entry into the race would strengthen the field as a whole and reassure voters that the field is strong. If he passes up the race, the perception of a weak field will remain and that will only serve to demoralize Republicans going into ’08.

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