With all the brouhaha and negative cable news coverage regarding candidate-in-waiting Fred Thompson’s decision to skip tonight’s Fox News New Hampshire debate in favor of a Jay Leno appearance in Hollywood, and how it’s going to “hurt” him – that’s all a total crock.
In fact, it’s a solid strategic move for several reasons:
First, by going on Leno, he becomes an official candidate strictly on his own terms — and in the safest possible soft ball venue; strategically, why be one of a handful of candidates fighting for coverage when you can have your own separate coverage that is part of a bigger storyline?
Second, the post-debate news coverage — which matters more than the debate itself — will, again, feature Thompson as his own story on Leno (with a nice process angle featuring his online announcement as a bonus) while the other GOP debate combatants will be fighting among themselves for space in print, broadcast and cable stories. And if they attack Thompson at the debate, all the better.
Third, those folks in NH who will be purportedly “offended” by Thompson’s debate no show will be the first ones to glom on to him when he, presumably, earns a poll bounce from the announcement blitz. Much of Thompson’s appeal is a result of dissatisfaction with the GOP field, and he is a relatively empty vessel to which loosely-affiliated GOP partisans (and there are many) can gravitate.
After Leno and the New Hampshire debate, Thompson then shows up in Iowa as the fresh new story and a blank slate upon which to sketch out his nascent message.
This is not to say Fred Thompson has it easy. After plenty of summer bungling and staff turmoil, he finally has some experienced people in place, and it already shows — considering the developing general good vibe around his announcement tour. As for the staff turnover, in particular within the communications apparatus, the recent dismissals of those with no or minimal campaign experience was sorely needed. You know the names. Kudos to new management for dealing with it. No experience in the most unkind, highest skill-level environment? Forget it.
Regardless, Thompson has much to prove, and he must do so quickly. His people know that; his GOP opponents know that (and have definitely laid some land mines out there for Thompson to step on); the press knows that; everyone knows that. It’s time to deliver the goods.
The bottom line, though, is that Fred Thompson’s campaign was being laughed at two weeks ago. The laughing, however, has changed to mere snickering as the collective powers that be await to see if the candidate and the campaign can outline a clear rationale for his candidacy, whether there is a plausible conservative message, the extent to which he can credibly embrace “change” in Washington as a former DC lobbyist and U.S. Senator, and, finally, whether the landmines can be side-stepped and mistakes avoided.
Let the fun begin.
Gordon Hensley — September 5, 2007; 1806 EDT