It looks as if Arthur Branch, a/k/a Fred Thompson, is about to swap Law and Order for the law and disorder otherwise known as campaign 2008.
As he travels around the country giving speeches, dispensing homilies, and blogging on numerous Web sites, the question for Thompson’s supporters no longer is whether he’ll announce his candidacy, but when. His entry, when it does come, will have a profound effect on the GOP race, since his looming presence has already influenced its shape so far.
To a lesser extent, so too will this week’s debates on CNN — the Democrats on Sunday (their second) and the Republicans on Tuesday (their third). These sparring matches come at a time when Congress has been immersed in the two hot-button issues of 2007: the Iraq War and immigration reform, both of which have exposed new divisions among the candidates.
Here, then, are new odds that reflect these shifting currents and include Thompson in the mix.
The odds of Giuliani’s getting the nomination will obviously be diminished by a Thompson entry. But for now he remains the front-runner because every time the “war on terror” emerges as an issue, he’s the figure to whom voters flock. Still, Giuliani appears to have no strategy for winning the earliest states, which could allow one or two other candidates to gain momentum heading into the large primaries on February 5. He needs another strong debate performance on Tuesday night, reminding GOP voters that if they want to win in 2008, he’s their strongest general-election candidate.
When you’re thinking of running for president, the press loves you — and Thompson is reaping the benefits. But he can expect a slew of attacks — especially from McCain, his old ally, who has found a new voice by roasting everyone in sight. When Thompson enters, he will become a temporary hero of the New Right and the conservative blogosphere. As he morphs into just another candidate, however, he runs the risk of becoming this year’s Howard Dean — strong in the season before the primaries, but weaker later on when it counts.
The theory had been that a Thompson entry would destroy McCain’s candidacy. But a more vibrant McCain has found his stride by again making himself the outsider: defending the congressional immigration compromise against GOP critics and strongly supporting the Iraq War against Democratic ones. He still has residual support in the early states. So, if he can do better in the debates (i.e., come across as younger), he has a chance of putting his campaign back together. Should he win Iowa or New Hampshire — and the latter, especially, is at least a reasonable possibility — he’ll go into Super Tuesday as one of the leaders.
Romney may have peaked too soon. If, for some reason, Thompson blinks, Mitt remains the attractive new face. But assuming Thompson stays focused, a lot of Romney’s early soft support will drift to the former Tennessee senator and then to others. In a divided field, Romney still has a good shot at winning his old neighbor, New Hampshire. But now, unless he wins both that state and Iowa, he’ll look like he’s fading. He needs to show more depth during the Tuesday-night debate. Otherwise, even though Romney is likely to win the Iowa straw poll this summer, it could be pretty much all downhill from there.