Can Fred Win?

Huckabee has a headstart, but Thompson's a strong finisher

Favorite son Fred Thompson got into the presidential race running against Rudy Giuliani. Now he's running against Mike Huckabee. The arc of this campaign keeps changing and now Fred finds himself in Iowa this holiday season fighting to stay in the race. Even his supporters back here in Tennessee have been asking (whispering among themselves) "What's the matter with Fred?"

When Thompson got into the race it didn't appear that Iowa would matter. Mitt Romney has spent two years and millions of dollars organizing, and seemed on track to score an easy victory. Giuliani and John McCain weren't even competing in the state. The Iowa result would have little drama with a Romney win against little competition.

Romney was expected to be the leading conservative in the New Hampshire primary as well, having been governor of neighboring Massachusetts and prominently featured on Boston television (which serves southern New Hampshire) for years. So South Carolina looked to be the first level-playing-field test of the campaign, and Thompson, being from next door, saw it as the break-out opportunity leading to bigger state primaries.

While Romney might win the first two contests, Giuliani and Thompson were one-two in national polls.

Huckabee changed the equation. When he started giving Romney fits in Iowa, it turned into a race. Should he upset Romney in Iowa, and possibly New Hampshire, he'll be the story of the campaign and will roll into South Carolina like a juggernaut. In fact, the attention Huckabee has received from his Iowa surge has been driving up his poll numbers elsewhere—nationally and in South Carolina.

For Thompson to continue in the race he needs two things to happen in Iowa: He needs for Romney to beat Huckabee, and he needs to come in at least a respectable third. Both things are doable, but it's a do-or-die situation—which is why Fred is on a bus doing retail campaigning in Iowa during the Christmas holidays.

The Huckabee surge has focused more attention on the former Arkansas governor. Romney has been hitting him hard in television ads. Should Romney get Huckabee supporters to re-think supporting the Arkansas Elmer Gantry, will they then turn to supporting Romney? If they liked Romney they wouldn't have been flirting with Huckabee to begin with. That's the opening Thompson needs. He argues that he's a "consistent conservative," as opposed to Romney's flip-flops. And he stresses his grasp of national and international affairs, as opposed to Huckabee's sparse résumé.

Should Iowa voters get tired of the Romney-Huckabee slugfest, some of them are likely to turn to Thompson. Thompson's picked up the endorsement of the most influential conservative congressman in Iowa, and he turned in an outstanding debate performance in Des Moines. Even normally critical pundits had to concede it.

So if the Huckabee momentum is significantly slowed in Iowa and Romney wins as had been expected for the past year, Huckabee lacks the momentum to do a lot of damage in New Hampshire. The Granite State has never been particularly kind to Southerners; that's one reason Thompson hasn't spent a lot of time there.

Should McCain turn out the independent vote and do really well in New Hampshire, it further undercuts the Huckabee boomlet. So when they get to South Carolina, Thompson may be back where he began, with South Carolina as his break-out state.

But there are a lot of ifs and buts in all this—and anything can happen. It's why we let the people vote instead of letting the pollsters and the pundits pick the president.

When Thompson gets his ads on the air and hits his stride he can make up a lot of ground. So don't give up on Fred. He started way behind and he started slowly in his first Senate race in Tennessee. But he came on in the end for a strong finish.