Fred Thompson made his unofficial presidential campaign debut last night on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show.” The appearance illustrated some of his strengths as a candidate, while he also successfully sparred with or avoided his weak points. It did not, however, answer all of the questions about his candidacy.
Thompson started by summarizing his campaign, noting that he began looking at the campaign in late March. “I decided it was time for me to step up.”
He dismissed critics who say he waited too late to enter the campaign, noting that traditional presidential campaigns never started before Labor Day. And, he added, candidates would probably lose anyway “if you can’t get your message out in a few months.”
He is also counting on voters making late decisions, comparing politicians to dentists. In both cases, he argued, people “don’t deal with it until they have to.”
Thompson spoke positively about his Republican opponents. He gave special praise to his good friend, John McCain, noting that the two men had adjacent desks in the Senate. He promised that he and McCain would remain friends “unless, of course, he beats me.” That line drew the most laughter for the night.
He sidestepped one of the biggest criticisms of his delayed campaign announcement. By announcing on The Tonight Show, Thompson was able to skip a Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire. That decision miffed his opponents and – more importantly – New Hampshire voters.
Again, he dismissed the criticism, saying “I don’t think its’s a very enlightening forum,” and added, “It’s a lot more difficult to get on ‘The Tonight Show.'”
He has a point. The late night talk shows have become an increasingly important showcase for presidential candidates ever since Bill Clinton made those stops a crucial part of his campaign. Thompson needed the talk with Leno. The question is whether it had to be on the same night as a debate in New Hampshire. He may be right about the forum, but the possibility of offending the New Hampshire voters was not addressed.
After a commercial break, Thompson and Leno continued the discussion. In the second segment, Thompson displayed some expertise on foreign affairs, an expertise built on his experience in the Senate. Opponents would be wise not to underestimate his skills in this area.
He started by voicing support for Bush’s invasion of Iraq and advocated that “we stay until we get the job done.” He acknowledge that the U.S. was often unpopular among the populations of other nations, but added, “Our country has shed more blood for the freedom and liberty of other people than all the other countries in the world.” That line got the most audience applause of the night.
When he left to audience applause a little later, Thompson had demonstrated why he could be a major candidate within the Republican Party. Specifically, he displayed what communication scholars Lang and Lang (1968) call the “television personality” and what Graber (1972) called a “political actor.”
Although that research goes back nearly 40 years, it still seems applicable today. Specifically, those observers noted that modern political campaigns require such a person, someone who is skilled in “television performance” while able to maintain a “political role” and a “stylistic role.”
Thompson did all three during the Leno appearance. He ideally fits the “political actor” role. What remains to be seen is whether he fits well with the voters. The Leno conversation was full of softball questions, and his aides acknowledged last week that his announcement was scheduled so that it would allow him to avoid the New Hampshire debate.
Still, as of last month, a CBS poll showed that two-thirds of the Republican primary voters were taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Thompson. Only one-fourth had a positive view of him.
Bottom line: Fred Thompson still hasn’t been tested as a candidate, and – despite his role on ‘Law and Order’ – many voters still know little about him.
Now he has to really start campaigning.
Lang, K., & Lang, G. E. (1968). Politics and television. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.
Graber, D. (1972). Personal qualities in presidential images: The contribution of the press. Midwest Journal of Political Science, 16, 46-76.
Nagourney, Adam (2007, September 1). Thompson plans to crash this party. New York Times, A9.
Sussman, Dalia (2007, September 4). An unfamiliar face. New York Times, A16.