The Shadow Candidates

Illustration by Darrow

For hard-core political junkies, few pleasures compare to those afforded by the official release of presidential fund-raising numbers. Here we have an opportunity to indulge in an orgy of the picayune (How much does Hillary Clinton pay Mark Penn? How much has John McCain spent on flowers?) and also to speculate feverishly about what the buck-raking totals mean for the future of the race. And yet, last week, when the numbers came out, I found myself thinking less about their implications for the crop of announced aspirants than about what they might portend for a pair of current sideline-dwellers—two men whose much-mooted entry into the fray would, as they say, change everything.

The men in question, you might have guessed, are Fred Thompson and Al Gore, both Tennesseans whose political histories are intertwined. It was Gore’s elevation to the vice-presidency that opened up the Senate seat that Thompson claimed in 1994. And it was Thompson who later led the (largely futile) investigation of Clintonian campaign-fund-raising misdeeds, in which Gore, with his cash-trawling trip to a Buddhist temple, had an infamous part. Now, after restorative stints in private life—Thompson focusing on his work as a screen actor and Gore on his as a global-warming Jeremiah—both are hovering in the wings, being begged by advisers and acolytes to take center stage again.

The most fervent pleading appears to be directed at Thompson. Until early last month, his name was rarely mentioned as a conceivable candidate, but then he turned up on Fox News Sunday and declared that he was giving a run “serious consideration.” Suddenly, a Thompson boomlet was inflating faster than the body count in Iraq. In polls of Republican-primary voters, he vaulted instantly into third place; and by early April, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey put him in second, behind Rudy Giuliani but ahead of the foundering McCain. Meanwhile, Thompson has stoked the flames: meeting last week with dozens of House Republicans, heading to California next month to speak at a splashy GOP rah-rah dinner—and possibly to schmooze Jay Leno. (Stop the presses!)

Thompson’s rapid ascent in the polls owes much to his celebrity. For the past four years, he has played the hangdog, hard-line prosecutor Arthur Branch on Law & Order and any number of its offspring. His film résumé is long, if unvaried, studded with roles that are mostly variations on one theme: grave authority. (He has played a president, a White House chief of staff, a CIA director, an FBI director, and a wide array of military officers.) Before he began to dabble in acting, Thompson was a lawyer—he served as the minority counsel to the Senate Watergate committee—and his account of his movie and television career has always been charmingly self-deprecating. “When they needed some middle-aged guy who worked cheap, they’d call me,” he once told Sam Donaldson.

Thompson’s thespianism often earns him comparisons to Ronald Reagan—and, as anyone who witnessed up close his 1994 Senate race (as I did) knows, he’s a similarly gifted politician. In that campaign, Thompson’s challenger, Jim Cooper, was a popular conservative Democratic congressman who led the race by nearly twenty points in the early going. But Thompson came up with a genius gimmick: driving around the state in a red pickup truck, delivering speeches from the flatbed in which he assailed his opponent as an elitist who had “never seen the inside of a pickup.” Thompson ultimately won with a staggering 61 percent of the vote.

Critics point out that Thompson’s aw-shucks, shit-kicker populism is more than a little bit phony. That he spent eighteen years as a registered Washington lobbyist, doing the bidding of such high-powered clients as General Electric and Westinghouse, pushing for the passage of the deregulatory legislation that led to the savings-and-loan crisis of the eighties. They note that as a bachelor senator, Thompson developed a reputation for being lazy—for spending more time chasing skirts around the capital than crafting legislation. (“Really lovely women just seem to like Fred,” Senator Orrin Hatch remarked memorably years ago.)

Thompson’s friends say that his skirt-chasing days are behind him. (He’s married now to his second wife, who, according to columnist Robert Novak, is urging him to run.) And heaven knows that faux populism, convincingly executed, has never hurt anyone with the Republican-primary electorate. What matters instead to that electorate is that Thompson is a real-deal conservative. And while his record here isn’t quite spotless—his support of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, in particular, rankles the right—it’s pretty freaking close. He has declared himself to be ardently pro-life and adamantly anti–gun control, and he’s one of the louder proponents of the notion that George W. Bush should (must) pardon Scooter Libby.

More to the point, Thompson’s conservative credentials put to shame those of his putative rivals. Across the country, there’s a palpable sense of dismay on the right with the extant Republican menu: Giuliani is (correctly) viewed as an out-front social liberal; McCain is seen as a hypocrite, a phony, never to be trusted; and Romney is perceived as a patent flip-flopper, who has changed his views on subjects from abortion to gay rights more readily (and less convincingly) than other people change their socks. As for the genuine conservatives in the race, such as Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, even the fringiest movement voters have (ahem) questions about their viability.

The lack of enthusiasm among Republicans for the current crop of candidates is more than anecdotal. A recent CBS/New York Times poll found that nearly six in ten GOP voters were unsatisfied with the options now before them. Thus does Thompson find himself staring at an opening as wide as the Grand Canyon.

Can anything similar be said of Gore? As recently as six months ago, countless Democrats would have answered yes. With their party still in the minority before last year’s congressional elections, and with Hillary Clinton—despite her muddled position on the war and worrying electability issues—apparently on track to march to the nomination anyway, there was, in many party circles, pining for Gore redux. And, no doubt, this sentiment hasn’t fully disappeared. Gore’s Oscar victory for his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, ratified his status as the leading voice in the emerging green-politics movement. His nomination for a Nobel Prize only further enhanced his stature. His forthcoming book, The Assault on Reason, and his LiveEarth concerts this summer are sure to keep him in the headlines.

Gore, of course, has consistently maintained that his global-warming crusade is not a precursor to a presidential run. As he told me last year, “This is a different kind of campaign—politics is behind me.” Yet Gore is hardly deaf to the entreaties of his fans. He knows that occupying the White House would put him in the most powerful position to advance his cause. And, according to whispers I’ve been hearing, he increasingly believes that a green platform would be a potent one in a presidential election.

Gore, however, is also a man who understands the art of the possible—which brings us back to those first-quarter numbers and their implications. By any standard, the sums raised by the Democratic candidates were astonishing: a grand total of $78 million, more than triple the amount ginned up in a similar span of time in any previous election season. And the totals racked up by Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards were beyond the expectations of anyone sensible, say, a year ago.

What the figures reinforce is the pervasive sense that Democrats, by and large, are happy with their field—and thus no longer craving a savior. Moreover, the success of Obama strikes me as being of particular consequence for Gore. Even more than his leadership on global warming, it was Gore’s prescient opposition to the Iraq war that provided a rationale for his late entry into the race. But now the Democrats possess a plausible candidate who occupied the same early antiwar position—and one who has demonstrated a capacity to go toe-to-toe with Clinton.

But if the results of the first round of the money primary represent a stop sign for Gore, for Thompson they’re a bright green light, flashing go-go-go. Among the three top-tier GOP candidates, only Romney’s $21 million fund-raising total was impressive in the least—and his obvious flaws as a candidate and his failure to catch fire with voters so far are impossible to overlook. (Indeed, whereas Romney once seemed to me likely to be the Pete Wilson of 2008, he now seems poised to become this year’s incarnation of Phil Gramm.) What the Republican first-quarter numbers reflect is a profoundly unsettled field—and a party in which many big-dollar donors are still holding back, perhaps in the hope that a new, fresh face will capture their attention.

Will Thompson try to do so? We’ll know soon enough—likely in the next few weeks. Just recently, though, Thompson returned to Fox News to announce that he had suffered from lymphoma, a condition that he’d kept secret for more than two years. (The cancer is now in remission.) Among insiders, the immediate conclusion was that the disclosure was the clearest indication yet that Thompson will jump in the race. The logic made sense: Why would Thompson go public now, if he planned to remain in private life? But this was still guesswork. Then, last week, his friend and adviser, former senator Bill Frist, told the Weekly Standard, “We thought we had to get it out early, in the sense that he’s going to be announcing.”

Just a slip of the tongue? You never know. But don’t be surprised if you soon start seeing that red pickup truck in Iowa.


The Shadow Candidates