And yet for all his real-world government service and his good conservative credentials, it is hard to escape the feeling that Mr Thompson is lighting up the contest at the moment because he is the Imaginary Candidate. Republican voters, demoralised by their present political condition and unenthused by their current field of candidates, are projecting their hopes and ideals on to a man that most still know best only as an entertainer. Much in his background remains unexamined - it is not widely known, for example, that before he commanded fictional submarines and prosecuted make-believe criminals, he was a real-life Washington lobbyist, stained, it can be safely presumed, by some of the grime you have to wade through to do that job effectively.
It seems to me that the abrupt appearance of Branch...er...Thompson into the pantheon of Republican candidates says more about the other candidates as it does about Thompson himself. This is a deeply-flawed field of Republicans. (And to be fair, the same can be said of the Democrats with the exception of my personal favorite, Bill Richardson) They've been all over the place on key issues and none of them have real conservative credentials. Mitt Romney is trying hard, but he can't run hard enough to escape his own past.
Thompson was pretty much a non-entity during his time in the Senate, but he wasn't controversial either. And he's got that elusive quality of gravitas that Cheney was supposed to give Bush. Of course Cheney has just turned out to be a snarling ogre... The rightwingers love to compare Thompson to Ronald Reagan, and like any other actor, he's good at delivering his lines. But I'd compare him more to Dwight Eisenhower -- a nice tall glass of political warm milk, more comfortable than challenging.
Of course the real test for Thompson will be when he has to actually take stands on the crucial issues of the day. I suspect he's very reluctant to do so, because right now everybody is blinded by the glow and actually joining the race and wallowing around in the mudpuddle will be a clear step down.
And then there's the issue of that trophy wife.
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