JSOnline - Thompson to Make Candidacy Official
By CRAIG GILBERT
Saying "it's a go," former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson will formally launch his dark-horse bid for the Republican presidential nomination Wednesday in Milwaukee, Iowa and New Hampshire, entering a race that he argues is "absolutely wide open" to the kind of low-budget, highly personal and localized campaign he is waging.
"This is retail politics, and I'm good at it," Thompson said of his effort in Iowa, which holds the first nominating contest next January and is where Thompson is spending the overwhelming share of his time and energy.
In a long interview, Thompson laid out the political assumptions that he is making about the public mood and the election process in 2008.
He also acknowledged that his first-quarter fund-raising report due April 15 - considered a key barometer of viability by many candidates and political analysts - will show relatively little money in the bank.
"I don't have much money, but I've got pledges for money," said Thompson, who said he is spending much more time trying to lay the foundation of an organization in Iowa than he is fund raising.
"I for one believe it's a smarter use of my time and efforts than raising money," said the former governor, who will appear this morning on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" to talk about his candidacy.
It has been almost nine years since Thompson's last campaign; six years since he held elective office; and two years since he served in the Bush cabinet as secretary of Health and Human Services. He will turn 66 in November.
His lack of money and the passage of time since his halcyon days as a popular, activist swing-state governor have led many insiders to view Thompson's candidacy as a long shot.
Thompson thinks his prospects in Iowa are underestimated. It is Thompson's theory that Iowa is everything, that an underdog candidate in this day and age can replicate what Democrat Jimmy Carter did in 1976 and parlay a monumental upset in the Iowa caucuses into enough instant money and momentum to compete and win in the states that follow.
Winning Iowa is "my whole premise," Thompson said.
Can Iowa deliver?
In effect, Thompson's candidacy rests on two huge ifs: that he can pull off an Iowa surprise and that such a surprise can quickly make up for the lack of a national name, political structure and financial network.
There are many doubters on both counts.
"While it worked for Jimmy Carter, that was 32 years ago. I think campaigns have changed a lot since then," said fellow Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, the veteran congressman who has known Thompson for decades and who reflects the prevailing view that candidates will have to raise staggering sums early on to survive a brutally compressed calendar of primaries next year.
"He's pretty dead serious about doing this," Sensenbrenner said of Thompson last week. But "he has no traction at all."
Thompson's aides cite a Zogby International telephone poll conducted March 28 of 404 likely GOP Iowa caucus-goers showing Thompson fifth at 5%, behind perceived front-runners such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain but ahead of the other "second-tier" Republicans in the race, such as Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. In his analysis, pollster John Zogby suggested Thompson's showing in the mid-single digits was noteworthy and "makes me understand now why Tommy Thompson from neighboring Wisconsin is in the race."
In another March poll done by American Research Group, Thompson drew only 1% of likely Iowa caucus-goers.
While he faces steep odds, Thompson is arguably pursuing the most logical strategy available to him, based on his own political strengths and weaknesses.
"I can work hard and organize and get along with people," said Thompson, who likes to compare the Iowa presidential campaign to "running for sheriff in 99 counties."
Laying the groundwork
Thompson is credited with recruiting respected Iowa political operatives and has made more trips to Iowa than any other Republican in the field.
Thompson said his family supports his candidacy but added: "I'm sure if they had a secret vote, I would have lost."
Thompson called Iraq the No. 1 issue in the election and touted his plan to divide the country into three separate states, Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. Asked if he thought the war was a mistake, he said: "You're always much more accurate in hindsight."
Asked what the lessons of the U.S. experience in Iraq were, he said: "They're the lessons that Colin Powell taught us. Have a reason to go. When you have that reason, you go in with overwhelming power and strength, and you dominate from start to finish. And you have an exit strategy. That's the smart thing to do when we have a military engagement. That was not done."
Thompson said he does not support timetables for withdrawal.
The former governor said he would build his campaign around such issues as health care, education and "medical diplomacy," his term for using America's health expertise and resources to win friends and nurture relationships with the rest of the world.
Thompson served four years under Bush as health secretary. He was asked whether he thought GOP primary voters are looking for a Republican candidate in the mold of Bush or something different.
"They're looking for something else," he said. "I think you're going to find some Republicans who would want to continue (in that direction) but the vast majority is looking for a new direction for the Republican Party. They're very concerned about the deficit, very concerned about a lack of engagement on health care and very tired of the war."
Thompson has set a high early bar for himself in saying he must finish at or near the top of an August straw poll of Iowa Republicans to be a viable contender in the caucuses that follow.
"The lead is going to change many times between now and January in the Republican Party," he said. "The Republican Party in Iowa is looking for a reliable conservative, is looking for somebody that's going to be truthful to them, is going to be loyal, is going to have ideas and can work with the other side to get things done."