BURBANK – Sen. Fred Thompson's turn on the "The Tonight Show" was a fairly effective articulation of his emerging "Southern-Fried Reagan" positioning. Strong, plain-spoken, and clear, Thompson focused on restoring pride in America at home and abroad. Was it a "star turn"? Maybe not. But Thompson successfully conveyed a semi-folksy "aura of authenticity" that ought to resonate with the Republican primaries "values voters," while simultaneously priming the general public with what some might describe as the kind of paternal, comforting personality that often resonates with voters in uncertain times.
For skeptical readers – particularly Democrats – who are unimpressed by Sen. Thompson's qualifications, his age, and his experience, we have two simple words: Ronald Reagan. American Presidential campaigns might include clashes of big ideas -- but, in the end, elections weigh heavily on tests of likability and faith in a candidate to represent their supporters ideals. And, in the primaries, whether party faithful believe that their preferred candidate has the potential to motivate the base, and turn out more moderate and independent voters in the general election.
That said, Thompson's real contribution to the Republican primaries is a positioning that he is the "real conservative" who has fought for and will continue to fight for the traditional American values held dear by the conservative core of the Republican Party, who also has the name recognition to be electable. Romney, Guiliani, and McCain, each possess backgrounds that challenge their abilities to convey a clear enough "aura" to resonate with the GOP's values-oriented core. Thompson's background is somewhat more "authentic."
At the same time, there is a strong argument to be made, particularly by the Guiliani campaign, that "vales" are not, necessarily, the critical driver of this election, that "national security" is, and that only a more socially-moderate Republican candidate can win a general election. And, under this scenario, Guiliani is the only candidate that can put states such as New York, California, Florida, and New Jersey into play. Possible? Yes. Likely" No.
If Thompson can mobilize Republican "values voters" to win the GOP nomination, he has a very reasonable chance of convincing general election voters that he represents a "safe" and "comfortable" choice in very uncertain times. Americans like to talk about "change," but changes requires the acceptance of "risk."
However, if the regional economies in battleground states such as Ohio get bad enough, "change" won't be view as a risk; it will be viewed as a requirement for basic survival. Here, "values" will matter less than "ideas" and Thompson, or any Republican nominee, will have very tough sledding. In order to be effective in this political environment, Thompson's "Southern-Fried Reagan" will have to ride taller in the saddle – and begin to articulate a bold agenda for "Restoring America to greatness." This means a articulating a way to bring jobs to the Heartland – and improving the day-to-day lives of regular Americas. If Sen. Thompson wants to play Ben Cartwright, he'll need to captivate his audiences with substantial blueprint for success.