I started out skeptical of the whole Fred Thompson thing. He could still explode in the primary. And I wonder what his general election campaign would look like. What would the themes and policies be? But the fact that we are even discussing him as we are is truly extraordinary. And I have some thoughts about that.
First, and part of the reason that I was skeptical of him as a conservative hero, is that he has taken a number of positions at odds with the conservative wing of the GOP. And these are not positions that he appears to be backing away from. For example, he is opposed to a Human Life Amendment and the Federal Marriage Amendment. These are grounded in a deep, deep federalism. If Fred Thompson were to be President and he were to have a Republican congress, would he push for legislation on the marriage amendment? Clearly not. (Now, this might change if someone brought a Full Faith and Credit challenge to a state’s DOMA were to get into federal court. But I tend to think that the challenge would fail)
So on some issues, Thompson won’t have to shift to the right for the primaries and shift to the left for the general. It appears that a significant amount of conservative support, if the DC rumor mills are to be believed, will come in spite of his "moderate" general-election-friendly positions.
It is important to note that this is about the party changing. If the conservative interest groups, who defend the role of these issues in the party, are willing to concede and support someone like Thompson, then the party has de facto changed. Indeed, ponder this statement: "The conservative interest groups will rally behind a co-sponsor of McCain-Feingold who opposes the marriage amendment and criminalizing abortion." That’s big. Now, these changes aren’t permanent until someone with these positions actually becomes President. And, at least on campaign finance, he has repudiated his past position, But still, it’s big.
Second, I imagine that many of the conservative groups are going to start tearing down his opponents, probably starting with Mitt Romney who seems to share voters and is leading in the early primary states. From the point of view of a Thompson candidacy, tearing apart Romney is probably the easiest way to add votes and move into the lead.
Third, Thompson’s late start is going to give him several advantages, in addition to the disadvantages. In the early states, the people who fail at Ames will provide staff that have been in the field. He will have less scrutiny and a shorter amount of time to be boring to the electorate. Less "campaign fatigue". He will have a pass on some policy development, at least for a little while. And that time will allow him to manage the politics of policy roll outs more effectively.