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Woulda, shoulda... could he?

If Fred Thompson can reassert himself in Iowa, watch for the GOP race to drag on into February with an unpredictable outcome.
/ Source: National Journal

Is it too late for former Tennessee Sen. to stage an Iowa surge?

Of course not, especially after the debate performance he delivered Wednesday in Des Moines. With 60 percent of Iowa Republicans saying they could change their vote before Jan. 3, Thompson, largely dismissed by the national punditry, is still very much in play. And if he does make a move, Republicans should settle in for a nominating battle that could stretch well past Valentine's Day.

Three weeks before Iowans vote, Thompson has fallen to third place in state polls. Trailing a surging and a well-organized, deep-pocketed , he lacks the funds to survive without a January win, a close second or a miracle. He's fallen from second to fourth place in national surveys. But Thompson's surprisingly strong showing Wednesday afternoon at the Des Moines Register's prosaic "debate," the final GOP forum before the caucuses, could re-establish him as more than a face in the corn fields. At the very least, his performance was a stark reminder of just how different the GOP race could look today if he had run a smarter campaign -- and launched his presidential bid months earlier than he did.

If he had joined the presidential race just three months ahead of his eagerly anticipated September entry, the actor-turned-politician-turned-actor would have enjoyed the luxury of time to tighten his style, message and techniques in a far less pressurized cooker, at a time when his rivals were largely ignoring each other as they honed their own message machines. With a star-struck press corps that was more than willing to extend his campaign's honeymoon, he could have spent the summer defining himself as the folksy, conservative alternative to then-front-runners Romney and . Meanwhile, he could have strategically targeted Huckabee and appealed to evangelical Christians well before the former Arkansas governor was equipped to do so.

Thompson may have done uncharacteristically well in Des Moines on Wednesday because his demeanor -- usually the low-key alternative to the flash-and-sizzle styles of Romney, Giuliani and Huckabee -- seemed more fitting in that decidedly decaffeinated TV studio. Facing a monotonous moderator who seemed more focused on time-keeping than provoking thoughtful answers or discussion, Thompson was able to shine.

But Thompson (who later referred to moderator Carolyn Washburn as "Nurse Ratched") was also consistently sharp. Early on, he tackled Social Security by saying he wants to "take a chance on telling the truth to the American people." In the absence of any truly defining moment throughout the entire 90 minutes, Thompson lobbed his tried-and-true zinger at Romney: "Well, you know, you're getting to be a pretty good actor." The crowd went wild. He crisply called out the National Education Association as a key foe of school-choice reform, and he defied Washburn's silly request for a "show of hands" on the complex issue of global warming.

"I'm not doing hand shows today. No hand shows."

"Is that yes or no for you?" she asked. "Do you believe that global climate change is..."

"Well, do you want to give me a minute?" he responded.


"Then I'm not going to answer it."

"How about 30 seconds?"

"No. You know -- you want a show of hands. I'm not giving it to you."

The crowd went wild, again.

Conservatives took note. "Could [Thompson] still be the best guy, after all that's happened?" wrote the National Review's Byron York after Wednesday's debate. "As the debate unfolded, there were moments when some of those loyalists began to think the answer might be yes -- in spite of everything."

"The winner was Fred Thompson. Fred came to play," wrote the Weekly Standard's Dean Barnett. "Fred had his best day of the campaign. He was serious, thoughtful, and authoritative. It was a wonderful day for him." Rich Lowry said Thompson's performance "should help in Iowa."

Still, most post-debate spin focused squarely on Huckabee and Romney, who by avoiding missteps or attacks did little to change the game. But what if Thompson is, in fact, able to change the game? Much like and John Kerry did in 2004, he could benefit from the increasingly negative tone of the race between the Iowa front-runners. Polling suggests Thompson might be the second choice for as many as 40 percent of Huckabee voters. Surveys also suggest that as many as six in 10 Iowa Republican caucus-goers say they could change their minds before they vote Jan. 3.

Aides say Thompson has thrown his campaign's entire focus into Iowa, all but pulling out of New Hampshire and South Carolina in an effort to reinvent himself.

If he does so, watch for the GOP race to drag into February -- far longer than the Democratic battle and with an outcome no one could possibly predict today.