DES MOINES — In these final days before Thursday's Iowa caucuses, Fred
Thompson has resigned himself to the criticism that's dogged him most _that he doesn't seem to want the presidency enough — and in fact embraces it, making it his unlikely closing argument for the Republican nomination.
As Mitt Romney attacks Mike Huckabee and John McCain, and they fire back, and Rudy Giuliani cuts his losses and heads to states where he might do better, Thompson is still driving around Iowa in a campaign bus, visiting small crowds and doing radio shows.
According to the latest McClatchy-MSNBC poll, he's in a distant third place in Iowa, , with 14 percent support, well behind Romney's 27 percent and Huckabee's 23 percent. McCain, who once seemed a lost cause in Iowa, is now at Thompson's heels, polling 13 percent. Thompson's opponents don't mention him as they criticize one another, and he doesn't talk much about them, either.
Meanwhile, Thompson and his campaign adviser Rich Galen are hinting that the results of Thursday's caucuses could determine whether the actor and former Tennessee senator has enough money and momentum to continue to other states.
Thompson spent the better part of a campaign appearance in Ames on Sunday defending his tempered ambition and flaunting his refusal to participate when the moderator of a recent debate asked for a show of hands on whether the Republican candidates considered global warming a serious threat.
"No hand shows," Thompson had declared.
He said he'd chided his rivals backstage: "If you guys can't stand up to an overbearing moderator, how are you going to stand up to the head of Iran and North Korea?"
"I think all those guys up there that night there at the debate thought exactly the way I did, but you could almost see the wheels turning, you know: 'Is this risky? Should I break away from the pack? Should I do anything that gets off of our script?' "
Not obsessing over whether he wins, Thompson said, "allows me to be freed up a little bit."
"I don't thirst for the name of president," he said. "How badly do you want a candidate to want it? I want it only for the right reasons. My personal ambitions lie in other places."
This argument appeals to many of his supporters.
"The other extreme is Howard Dean, where somebody had way too much fire," said Steve Gara, an accounting professor torn who's between Thompson and McCain. He was recalling the Democratic National Committee chairman and former Vermont governor's angry bid for the Democratic nomination four years ago.
Connie Patrick, a telephone company employee, said of Thompson's campaign, "I don't think it's just his 'next step.' I think he's sincere."
Thompson's problem is that his laid-back approach has limited appeal, especially leading up to a general election in which Republicans expect to face an aggressive Democratic challenger and an electorate weary of war and President Bush.
Thompson's support has shrunk since the long summer buildup to his official campaign announcement on "The Tonight Show" in September. He campaigns as "the clear conservative choice." But Huckabee rose up as the Southern populist Christian conservative alternative to Romney, a Mormon. Romney is the establishment corporate candidate. McCain appeals to independents, and Giuliani shares with McCain an appeal to national security voters. That's left Thompson with less of a niche, on unsure footing.
His willingness to propose a detailed, belt-tightening Social Security restructuring plan won praise from critics across the partisan spectrum. So did his ability to talk knowledgeably about Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto's assassination last Thursday.
Still, Huckabee's pre-caucus events have drawn plenty of early Thompson supporters who aren't so sure anymore. The McClatchy-MSNBC poll found that 42 percent of those who were planning to caucus for Thompson said they might change their minds, the highest uncertainty rate among supporters of the leading Republicans.
Thompson adviser Galen said they expected him to "come in no worse than third" in Iowa, but conceded: "We probably have to come in third" to stay in the race. What happens next, Galen said, "depends on time, tide and money."
Thompson one-upped the challenge, saying, "I need to come in second," but then laughed. Having mounted no campaign to speak of in New Hampshire, which votes Jan. 8, he declined to discuss whether he's poised to drop out or committed to stay in the race through the first Southern primary, on Jan. 19 in South Carolina.
Early on, his campaign expected a win there that could help him sweep other Southern states. Now, however, Thompson won't look past what happens Thursday night in Iowa.
"Why don't we wait until Thursday and find out?" he said. "It won't be long now."