Why Fred Thompson Won't Enliven the GOP Race

The night he stopped playing Hamlet, Fred Thompson didn't quite get the part of Banquo's ghost haunting the banquet.

Not that Thompson the actor ever did Shakespeare. He has essentially played himself -- the friendly, bald, rumpled uncle -- in several forgettable movies and on the TV show Law and Order.

But he dithered long enough about whether and when he would actually run for president to inspire several Republican professionals to compare him with the famously indecisive Dane.

And there is little doubt that on the night he finally announced his candidacy online and on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, he hoped to dominate the Republican debate that ended less than two hours earlier -- just as the ghost of Macbeth's recently murdered former ally dominated the banquet of the regicidal new king.

Unable actually to transport his spirit from Leno’s California studio to the University of New Hampshire fieldhouse where the other eight candidates stood, Thompson did the next best thing. He bought the commercial minute just before the debate began on Fox News, appearing dark-suited and somber to warn, "We can't allow ourselves to become a weaker, less prosperous, and more divided nation," thereby drawing a sharp distinction between himself and all those candidates who favor impotence, poverty, and disunion.

It didn’t work, even though debate moderator Britt Hume’s started the debate by asking the other candidates about "the man who isn’t here." They all got a little dig in at Thompson -- Sen. John McCain quipped that the hour might be "past his bed-time" -- who was then entirely forgotten by questioners and candidates alike. Perhaps the other eight saw that ad and concluded that they didn't have much to worry about.

As an entertainer, Thompson ought to understand his problem: If you give yourself a big buildup before the curtain rises, you'd better have a boffo opening. He didn't. Neither on Leno nor in his 15-minute formal declaration online did the former Tennessee senator say much to distinguish himself from his rivals. Like almost all the other Republican contenders -- indeed like all of them who have the slightest hope of getting the nomination--he would say nothing to disturb the party's hard-line conservative base. He wants to fight on in Iraq, lower taxes, outlaw abortions, be tough on illegal immigrants, and feel good about America.

And so say they all, all except former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. Giuliani favors abortion rights but prefers the subject come up as little as possible. As for Paul, he wants to lower taxes, wall off the borders, and outlaw abortions with the rest of them. Only on the war (which he thinks the United States should get out of immediately), and on the use of "extraordinary" interrogation techniques (which he opposes), does the libertarian contrarian differ from his opponents more forcefully and more vigorously than any of the Democratic candidates.

But everybody, even Paul, knows that he is not going to win the Republican nomination, and on issue after issue all the others, now including Thompson, are singing essentially the same tune, if not always in the same key. That does not make for a very appealing show. Now that Thompson's Tonight Show declaration has effectively obliterated the last remaining distinctions between politics and show business, it could be time for all the Republicans to contemplate why their show is not packing them in on the road: They're playing to a dwindling niche audience.

Consider New Hampshire, where the Republican primary turnout will be "significantly lower than the Democratic" next year for the first time ever, according to Dante Scala, the University of New Hampshire political scientist who keeps close tabs on public opinion in the state.

First of all, Scala said, most of the independents, who can vote in either party's primary, are likely to opt for the Democratic one. Some are even becoming Democrats.

"There has been sharp Democratic growth and stagnant Republican growth since 2002," Scala said. For the first time, he said there are almost as many registered Democrats as Republicans in the state, in part because "a lot of long-time residents, formerly moderate Republicans, the Gerald Ford Republicans, feel out of place in the party." Whether they are becoming independents or moving all the way over to the Democrats, they are not voting in Republican primaries anymore.

New Hampshire is not exactly typical; there were always more GOP moderates in the state than in most. But neither is it unique. A passel of polls indicate that the party's base -- and those are the most reliable primary voters everywhere -- is getting smaller, dwindling down to the truest-believing conservatives.

Hence the Republican monotone, with none of the actual prospective nominees willing to break with party orthodoxy or with President Bush on the Iraq war. The niche to which they must appeal is the pro-war minority.

To be sure, campaigning in both parties is niche marketing now, just as show business is. A Fox News official said he hoped the debate would attract an audience of perhaps 3 million -- a lot of people, but 1 percent of the population. Even Jay Leno's is a niche audience. On a good night, it might attract 3 percent of the population. Law and Order itself, for all its success, doesn't really attract a mass audience; some Republican strategists were surprised at how many people had never heard of Thompson. Most voters don't watch that show, or any one show.

It isn't that the Democrats have no niche considerations. Each party has its base, and all candidates have constituencies to which they must appeal. So when Former Sen. John Edwards warns against "just swapping the Washington insiders of one party for the Washington insiders of the other" he is signaling to the fiery, populist Democrats that he is one of them. When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton says "you bring change by working in the system," and touts her "experience," she is assuring Democrats wary of fiery populism that she is one of them.

But right now Democrats are working within a bigger niche. Besides, the very disagreement indicated that there is room for dissent within that niche, or maybe that there are sub-niches -- realists versus idealists or however one wishes to label them. The Democrats have centrist-liberals as well as not-so-centrist liberals in their camp these days. The Republicans, appealing only to the most conservative voters are left fighting over their credentials, or over who is truer to the cause.

Actually, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, well ahead in the New Hampshire polls, seems to be trying to give himself a little wiggle room to dissent from the operations, if not the justification, of the war. More than once Wednesday night, he said the troop surge "seems to be working," or "is apparently working."

Arizona Sen. John McCain was having none of that: "The surge is working, sir, no, not apparently. It's working."

It was almost as lively an exchange as the one between Paul and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee over whether and how to get out of Iraq. When Paul said the war was hurting Republicans at the polls, Huckabee replied, "Even if we lose elections, we should not lose our honor."

"We have lost over 5,000 Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq," Paul said. "What do we have to pay to save face?"

That was entertaining, but politically meaningless. At some point, and probably soon, one of the leading candidates is going to have to risk breaking with party orthodoxy. The four leaders -- Thompson, Romney, McCain, and national front-runner Giuliani all did well enough Wednesday night/Thursday morning. If there was a winner, it might have been McCain, who seemed more his old, insouciant self than he has for months. But it was, at best, a narrow victory in front of a small audience. In New Hampshire, the debate was competing with the red hot Boston Red Sox, who lost to the Toronto Blue Jays, surely watched by more Republicans than McCain, Giuliani, et al.

The GOP show, then, needs some excitement. If Thompson does not provide it, could another performer be waiting in the wings? Well, Newt Gingrich is scheduled to speak in Concord next month. In Washington, the conventional wisdom is that Gingrich knows his nomination is unlikely, his election all but impossible, and would not risk the humiliation.

And the chance to perform. If Hamlet fizzles, if Banquo never shows up dead or alive. Falstaff, anyone?