GOP field appears to narrow

Some analysts are saying the race could come down to a two-man contest between former senator Fred Thompson and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

He's hiring staff, raising money, making public appearances, and doing nicely in the polls – all without announcing even an exploratory committee for his presidential campaign.

In fact, Fred Thompson might consider never formally entering the 2008 presidential sweepstakes, he's doing so well – or at least wait "until after he's wrapped up the [Republican] nomination," quips pundit Stu Rothenberg.

But in the end, the former senator from Tennessee, lawyer/lobbyist, and TV actor does, by many press accounts, plan to announce in early September that he is running for president; he may formalize an "exploratory" phase before then. One point is already clear: GOP nomination race 2.0 has begun.

"It's down to three [candidates]. Some would say 2-1/2. I would say three," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

The half-candidate would be former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who still leads in national polls, but whose numbers have been falling steadily for several months – in direct proportion to the steady, upward trajectory of Mr. Thompson's, according to Pollster.com.

The campaign of Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, once seen as the GOP heir apparent, is nearly bankrupt, and with Thompson entering the race, that makes his money chase all the more difficult. Mr. Giuliani could remain strong if there's continued national focus on terrorism – and especially if the US is attacked again before the primaries. But failing that, the race may well boil down to Thompson and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, analysts say.

Despite Giuliani's longstanding position at the top of the GOP heap in national 2008 presidential polls, political experts have attributed that lead to name recognition. As conservative base voters have learned about Giuliani's liberal positions on abortion and gay rights, the former mayor's overall support has declined.

But more important than national polls are the early nomination states – Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. Mr. Romney is strong in the first three, but mired at 4 percent in South Carolina in the latest poll, conducted by CNN July 16-18. In Florida, Romney is at 9 percent and 12 percent, in the latest polls taken there – the first by Quinnipiac University and the second by American Research Group.

Giuliani still leads in both Southern states, but the formal entrance of Thompson into the race could change that dramatically. Thompson is expected to play especially well on his Southern home turf, where his accent, mainstream religious affiliation (Church of Christ), and consistent conservative voting record as a senator contrast with Romney's Northern sensibility, Mormon faith, and recent conversion to conservative social views.

The wild card is whether Thompson will live up to his advance hype. But going in, he enjoys enormous goodwill from the core of the Republican Party. Religious conservatives have shrugged at evidence that Thompson lobbied on behalf of an abortion-rights group in the early 1990s.

People will say, "Well, he's a lawyer, he's got to represent his clients," says Richard Land, a top official of the Southern Baptist Convention. "His statements on life have been as strong as they possibly can be."

Thompson could also have been hurt among religious conservatives for his initial support for campaign finance reform. Senator McCain earns conservative enmity for being the measure's chief Republican sponsor, but Thompson has since called the reform a mistake, and so conservatives give him a pass there as well.

"He's the only one that everyone in the party can live with," says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "Romney will get some people upset; Giuliani will get some people upset. Thompson doesn't face that. That's his big asset."

In delaying the formal announcement, originally expected earlier this month, Thompson and his team are "playing it safe and just making sure they're ready," says Mr. Geer. The GOP field's underperformance in fundraising, as compared with the Democratic field, shows that Republicans are sitting on their wallets and waiting to be inspired by a candidate. Thompson is expected to hold a major fundraiser in Washington later this month, an event that will demonstrate just how strong he can be in the crucial "money primary."

The last presidential candidate to enter a race late and in response to a draft movement was Gen. Wesley Clark (D) of Arkansas, in 2004. In his case, the advance hype proved greater than the reality of his campaigning skill. But General Clark had never run for office before. Thompson has proven skill at politics, with his ambling, Southern manner and actor's touch.

The one hole in Thompson's résumé is his lack of demonstrated executive ability. But, says Mr. Land, "if he is able to put together a campaign that can successfully compete, then he will fill in that hole."

One advantage to holding off on his announcement may be that it squeezes Newt Gingrich out of the GOP race. The former House speaker has long talked about making a decision on whether to run in late September. If Thompson announces in early September, there may still be enough buzz that there's no room for Mr. Gingrich, suggests Geer.

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