The 2008 presidential nominating contests are going to be remembered as a cycle of political "musical chairs." The subtitle of this show might be a variant of Andy Warhol's famous dictum, i.e., "Everyone gets fifteen minutes as the frontrunner."
So far, Hillary Clinton has been the long-time Democratic frontrunner, and then Barack Obama got it for a few days by winning an upset in Iowa. As of now, following Mrs. Clinton's surprise win in New Hampshire, no one on that side is the frontrunner. But soon enough, there will be one again.
John McCain was the original Republican frontrunner, but he was soon superceded by Rudy Giuliani who held that status for most of the summer and autumn. Leading in early polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Mitt Romney was then arguably a frontrunner, but when Mike Huckabee won an upset in Iowa, he was briefly the frontrunner. John McCain won convincingly in New Hampshire, and now he is the frontrunner once again. If he wins in Michigan this week, he will firm up his standing as the leader of the pack.
But then the national focus turns to South Carolina, the fourth leg of the newly-created official early caucus-primary season. Here we may discover that the voters are graciously determined to have all the major candidates enjoy at least a brief moment in the spotlight. John Edwards, in fact, has to win here or face near certain elimination.
Fred Thompson also must either win here, or come in a very strong second, to revive his flagging campaign. And he might just do that. This is a state which is made for the low-key but solid conservative credentials of the lawyer-actor-senator-turned actor back again. Judging by his debate performance at the South Carolina GOP debate, Thompson has finally figured out how to campaign for president.
"The Hunt for Red October" is probably my favorite movie of the past twenty years, and I do not tire of the brilliantly constructed suspense of its story line even though I know exactly how the movie will turn out. Fred Thompson was not the major star of the movie, but he was one of the co-stars as the rear admiral. Similarly, he did not have that much camera time on the hit TV show "Law & Order," but he has played his role as the district attorney with consummate laid-back finesse, something which is natural to his style.
Republican voters, like their Democratic counterparts, are taking their time picking their nominee, This infuriates the media and many of its pundits who want their polls and theories to produce a quick conclusion, and not be embarrassed when each primary produces a surprising result that few if anyone predicted.
With that in mind, I want to make it clear that I am not predicting a Thompson upset in South Carolina (which is what it would be if he won or came in close second, trailing as he does now most of his rivals). But I do want to point out that South Carolina is just the place for Thompson to draw a line in the sand and make his biggest stand.
The Republicans are in the hunt for a "red November" this year, unlikely as that outcome has seemed to be over the past spring, summer and autumn. They need a candidate who can keep the conservative GOP base and still attract moderates and independents and perhaps some unhappy Democrats, too. For the moment, the most likely candidate seems to be John McCain. Messrs. Romney, Huckabee and Giuliani seem more
associated with the various wings of their party, and might have more difficulty in uniting it for November, although any one of them could win the nomination.
Thus it is Thompson's moment of opportunity if he can convince South Carolina GOP voters he has both the conservatism they require (he does have the endorsement of the National Right To Life organization), the independent spirit of a John McCain and the charm of a Mike Huckabee. We have seen brief flashes of these qualities during the campaign up to now, but nothing has been sustained, and his rivals have outperformed him.
His small part as a lawyer in Watergate, his ervice as a U.S.senator, and his stardom in movies and TV were perhaps only a rehearsal for what he is now doing this week. He could still turn out as a bit player in 2008, or after his South Carolina tryout, he might well end up with his biggest part of all.
____________________________________________________________-This article first appeared in Real Clear Politics on January 14th, 2008.