In virtually every election cycle, there is a group of candidates who linger on the sidelines, unable to decide whether to enter the race. These Hamlets tend to fall into three categories. The first Hamlets just can’t make up their minds whether they want to run or even be president. At the end of the day, they almost always decide it isn’t worth the trouble, or that they couldn’t win. The history of presidential politics is littered with these candidates (Mario Cuomo was a notable member of this group), most of whom have disappeared into the ash bin of political history.
The second group is composed of candidates who, for whatever reason, have been asked to enter the race — usually by a cadre of supporters who find the existing field unworthy or deficient. (Think of Colin Powell about a decade ago.) Most of these candidates also resist the siren call. After all, if they wanted to run for president, they’d have done it in the most winnable way — which is to get organized on their own, as early as possible.
The third group doesn’t exist much anymore because of changes in the rules. These are candidates who also have been asked to enter the race, but unlike the previous group, they’re brought in to stop a particular candidate who looks like he or she is on the verge of victory. (Hubert Humphrey almost entered the 1976 race to try to stop Jimmy Carter.) Since nominations are locked up so early now, this group has morphed into a different category altogether — that of third-party candidates, such as Ross Perot, who try to alter the race directly by entering the general election. (More on them in a future column.)
This year, there are five potential candidates lurking on the fringes of the race. Not surprisingly, since the Christian right isn’t particularly pleased with the GOP field, most are Republican. In fact, some members of the party’s conservative base are so apoplectic about the “moderate” nature of the field that they’ve talked about drafting Dan Quayle! (Talk about “desparate,” as Quayle might write!)
Briefly, with an explanation of their prospects, they are:
Why he might run: Though the National Journal rates his recent voting record as more conservative than even Sam Brownback’s, Hagel’s calling card is his opposition to the Iraq War. Because his home state (Nebraska) is close to Iowa, in theory, he might do well in the first caucus.
Prediction: The media and Democrats love Hagel. Unfortunately for him, neither group will determine the Republican nominee. If he runs he’ll lose badly, which is why he won’t run.
Why he might run: Thompson was a good governor of Wisconsin and earned plaudits as Health and Human Services secretary. He probably looks at Mitt Romney and thinks, if Mitt can do it, why can’t I?
Prediction: Romney has three advantages over Thompson: he started earlier, he’s a better fundraiser, and his home state is closer to New Hampshire. For these reasons, Thompson is likely to figure out he can’t make it, and will decide not to run.
Why he might run: A former Tennessee senator and current actor and radio commentator, Thompson is the latest darling of the New Right, which has persuaded him to take a look at the race. He’s a great communicator and a compelling character — hardly surprising given his considerable experience in Hollywood.
Prediction: Thompson is often compared to Reagan because both were actors. But there’s one considerable difference. Reagan was a leading spokesman for conservative causes for years before he ran for president. In contrast, Thompson is known as a very decent guy who never really exerted much of a leadership role in Congress. Plus, he’s McCain’s friend. For those reasons, it’s unlikely he’ll change his stripes now and decide to seek the highest office. But the pressure is heavy.
If he gets into the race: It becomes a three-and-a-half-way race, with Romney behind the leaders and McCain suffering the most. Romney survives, but ironically only because another major candidate’s presence in the race further splits the vote in New Hampshire, making it likelier that Romney will win the primary he needs to win.
Why he might run: Gingrich is different from the three above. Everyone knows he’d like to run, but he knows he has the highest negatives of almost anyone in contemporary politics. So he’s spending these months trying to reinvent himself and confessing all his faults (like his affair during the Clinton impeachment process), in the hopes he’ll create a movement for himself.
Prediction: The guess here is that he gets in the race sometime over the summer, in response to the pleas of conservative leaders (or so he’ll say). But only if Fred Thompson doesn’t.
If he gets into the race: He’ll immediately jump into a very respectable third in the polls behind Giuliani and McCain. The guess here is that a Gingrich candidacy hurts McCain the most and helps all the Democrats, because let’s face it: Gingrich is even more disliked throughout the nation than Hillary is.