This is sort of an awkward time to attempt the first Republican Cattle Call since February. After all, the face of the race changed dramatically last week with the news that TV's Fred Thompson is forming an exploratory committee, and in so doing binding to the starved Reagan receptors of the reptilian Republican brain. TV's Fred is theoretically the more electable of the Thompson Twins -- but only because Tommy is the kind of guy who awkwardly praises a Jewish crowd for their moneymaking acumen, and who can't even remember to take his Flomax before a nationally televised debate. I mean, Fred can't help but look like the superior Thompson next to Tommy. In fact, he's probably hoping that Tommy hasn't poisoned the good Thompson name.
Fred is the one in the lead.
But in all seriousness -- TV's Fred is being hailed as the real deal by disgruntled Republicans across the country. Offended by the various heresies of their existing candidates, and hungry for the Father Figure that Republicans instinctively crave, are turning to the man ivariably referred to as "the 6'5" actor" for manly leadership. Now, as Glenn Greenwald points out in a characteristically excellent piece, Thompson's manly persona is as fake as Rock Hudson's heterosexuality -- a gossamer creation of Hollywood and Dick Wolf. The truth is that Fred Thompson is a lobbyist living in McLean, VA, with a trophy wife half his age. But that really doesn't matter in an America that not only elected, but canonized, Ronald Reagan. TV's Fred is a tough guy because, well, folks think he's a tough guy. And when Peter King (the Long Island Republican, not the self-obsessed SI football writer) says that Republican primary voters can differentiate between real tough guys and frauds ("Rudy had 9/11, and Fred Thompson had 'Law & Order"), he's delusional. Thompson is tall, he's portrayed admirals and generals and tuffbutfair prosecutors on American's favorite medium, and he like to wave around fat Churchills during his speeches. He's Grade A Republican presidential material. And the fact that he's third in national polls without even trying bears that out. Sorry, Peter.
So what does Thompson mean to the race, and where does he fit in the Cattle Call at this juncture? Well, he's instantly in the top tier, despite the fact that his operation is just getting off the ground. All he has to do is raise 5 or 6 million this month to look competitive in the Q2 race -- and the first few million are the easiest, especially for a guy jumping in with the kind of fanfare that Thompson has received. My pet theory is that he hurts Romney worst, with McCain a close second -- more on that below.
If I had to guess today, I'd say that TV's Fred will be the nominee, so long as he runs a reasonably capable campaign. Everything is going his way, and the party is desperately crying out for a guy like him. But the rules of the Cattle Call dictate that we rank their likelihood of winning if the primaries/caucuses started today -- and a guy with virtually no staff or money can't jump to the top of the charts on Day 1.
So here we go. No arrows this time, as it's a whole different ballgame than it was in February.
Top Tier (such as it is)
1) Rudy. I place Rudy's chances of actually winning the nomination below that of Thompson, McCain, and even Newt Gingrich. But it's undeniable that right now, he's positioned better than Romney or McCain. Despite trailing both Mitt and McCain in New Hampshire, and being tied with them in Iowa, he's got a substantial lead in national polls, which helps translate into continued big fundraising, which will lead to an excellent news cycle at the end of June. And while TV's Fred does possibly cut into Rudy's Daddy-lovin' base, I don't think he hurts Rudy nearly as much as he does Romney or McCain.
Romney's entire candidacy is predicated upon the idea that: a) he "looks like a president," and b) he's the mainstream conservative heir to the Bush of 2000 -- the sensible, outside-the-beltway tell-it-like-it-is Leader. Mitt's problem is that Thompson trumps him on both counts. And Thompson isn't a member of a religion that 30-40% of Republican voters think of as a Satanic cult. McCain, on the other hand, is trying to run as the consensus Party Establishment Candidate. But when large swathes of the party hate you (more so now than ever before because of the immigration bill), and your frontrunner status -- the most valuable asset of any Establishment candidate -- is slipping away like the credibility of the Fox/CBC debate, you really can't style yourself as the Establishment Candidate anymore. Especially when there's a perfect Establishment Candidate understudy in Thompson. Meaning that Thompson becomes the new Establishment guy. And then people don't give you money. And then you turn into Phil Gramm.
So Rudy is better off than Mitt or McCain. And it's too early to put Thompson at the 1) slot, simply because he wouldn't win Iowa or New Hampshire if things stated today. But I doubt that Rudy will be here next month. His numbers -- both nationally and in the early states -- are actually on a downward trend. His pathetically lukewarm answer to the abortion question in the first debate really made news, and he's constantly being forced to talk about social issues now -- exactly what he had hoped to avoid. Add to that the simmering Bernie Kerik scandal news, and Giuliani's own penchant for meltdowns, and he's got a slender chance of pulling the nomination out. But he's tops for now.
2) Thompson. If he hires a good staff, doesn't say anything dumb, pays off his ex-mistresses, and doesn't experience an obvious recurrence of his leukemia, he's in good shape.
3) McCain. Unlike a lot of you, I don't think that he's out of it. He does have a solid team, and there are a number of chits that he can call in around the country. But as discussed above, Thompson gives the Establishment a new safe harbor. And McCain's refusal to sell out on the immigration bill is akin to self-crucification -- the base cannot stand that bill, and McCain is petulantly defending it, treating the bill's opposition like troglodytes. This is dumb. McCain is rapidly gaining the worst kind of momentum, the momentum of party activists running away from your side in droves. Political scientists call this phenomenon Joementum Republicanus.
McCain needs to raise a bunch of money in Q2, and he needs to savagely attack Thompson ASAP, lest he become irrelevant before Thanksgiving.
4) Romney. He was just starting to build his numbers and look like a real player, and then Fred Thompson had to get in and kick him out of his ecological niche.
There Is No Second Tier, Just Ordered Losers
5) Hunter. Resonating with the extremists better than anyone else.
6) Huckabee. Will he raise seven figures for Q2? If not, shouldn't they just take him out back and do the humane thing? He's undoubtedly talented, but he can't get traction.
7) Newt. I think he's pretty obviously running, and when he actually starts to do so in an active way, could make things interesting. Till then, though, he stays here.
It's dinner time, and I'm not going to forsake lamb chops to rank the rest of them. Suffice it to say that none of them have a chance.