WASHINGTON — While supporters of the 10 current Republican candidates for president are holding their breath, waiting to see what impact the entry of former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., will have on their favorite contenders, many others are simply asking how he will do.
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There is no question that a vacuum exists in the Republican field, and, likely to the chagrin of former Vice President Al Gore, there is no such opening on the Democratic side. Normally there would be no room for a late entrant, but with GOP front-runners having hit unexpected resistance and turbulence, there is room.
But will Thompson be able to effectively fill that vacuum? Will he be able to measure up to the Ronald Reagan-sized shoes that some are suggesting he could fit? This is an exceedingly difficult standard, as lofty as the comparison being made between Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John F. Kennedy.
There is no question that Thompson is an effective communicator. His skill and wise, reassuring bedside manner are a big plus. But will that be enough to make up for his rivals' organizational and financial head start? Only a fool would believe that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or even former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani hadn't begun laying the groundwork for their campaigns long before.
There are some potential danger signs on the road that Thompson has to travel before reaching the GOP nomination. Perhaps the biggest knock is the "laziness" charge. There is no doubt that his slow-moving, ambling persona, a lower metabolism rate that many think is systemic to being a Southerner, could be a problem (as a native-born Southerner, I can say that). Whether that charge has any merit, or is even fair, is for someone else to decide. But I suspect we will know before too long.
Furthermore, some of the statements attributed to his key advisers are raising red flags. In the current issue of Newsweek, it is reported that "Thompson is preparing to mount a somewhat untraditional bid for the GOP nomination. Aides say he will spend less time on the road than his competitors and will instead rely on new forms of communication with voters, including blogs, online videos and other Internet tools. Thompson allies acknowledge that might not always fly in early primary states where candidates are often judged as much by their ability to flip a pancake as on policy issues."
This corresponds with reporting by Christopher Cooper in the Wall Street Journal that Thompson advisers hoped to use technology such as video uplinks so he wouldn't have to campaign as extensively as his rivals to get the nomination. Cooper writes that there are "signs that Mr. Thompson may adopt an unconventional campaign style -- limiting in-person appearances by making extensive use of blogging and online video."
In addition, an ABC News piece quotes a Thompson aide stating, "because of his name ID, he doesn't have to go diner to diner and church to church."
For folks who have been around politics for a while, statements and strategies such as these are flashing lights and warning signals that these folks think they've found a shortcut to the White House.
What a truly ridiculous notion.
No amount of name ID can replace one-on-one contact with voters, especially in early primary and caucus states.
Campaigns are about pressing the flesh. While new technology might help to increase the ways in which candidates communicate with voters, and the frequency in which they do so, nothing beats in-person appearances. Spoiled voters in early states demand face-to-face campaigning.
Furthermore, any candidate who has the slightest reputation for having a less than superhuman work ethic has to approach any presidential campaign with either an inhuman activity level or something that will pass for extraordinary, lest the "lazy" tag both sticks and hurts.
The trail to the presidency is not an easy one, and any individual who shies away from rigorous work should seriously reconsider entering the race. The second challenge Thompson might face is what he's done, or rather not done, to demonstrate presidential ability.
In an NBC News interview this past weekend, when asked his "greatest Senate accomplishment," he responded:
"Well, I facetiously said 'leaving the Senate' the other day, when somebody asked me that question. But, I don't guess I ought to say that again. There are a lot of things, you know... uh... I would take a while, I guess, in discussing all of that. Doesn't always have to do with putting your name on a piece of legislation. There's an awful lot of bad legislation that I had to stop, for one thing. I managed the Homeland Security bill when it was on the Senate floor, and several other things. We'll get a chance to get into all of that when I start talking to everybody about what a wonderful person I am. But we're not quite at that stage yet."
That is not exactly a luminous list of accomplishments. Thompson fans are probably now saying, "Wait a minute Charlie, he's not even in the race yet and you are expecting him to have every answer down pat; to be performing at the same level or better than those who have been running for at least half a year?"
The answer is unequivocally "yes." Thompson and his campaign have little time for a shakedown cruise. To think that technology can replace toil and sweat is, at the least, naive, if not delusional.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.