An Interview With Fred Thompson’s Campaign Manager, Bill Lacy

On Tuesday of this week, I got together with Fred Thompson’s campaign manager, Bill Lacy, for a phone interview. What follows is the transcript of our conversation, which has been edited for grammar, clarity, and brevity.

Fred has been accused, fairly or unfairly, of being lazy. With that in mind, how does the level of activity in Fred’s campaign match up to that of his opponents? In other words, is he working as hard as Mitt, Rudy, McCain and Company?

I think that characterization of Fred is probably one of the single most unfair things I have seen in my career in politics. Fred is a very hard worker. He is a very measured and thoughtful guy. He is not prone to run out and make decisions or do things without thinking about them, but he works very hard…

In let’s say, raw appearances. Is he making as many appearances in front of groups per day as say Mitt or Rudy? Is he hitting as many states as say McCain or Huckabee?

To be honest with you, I have not measured that, per se. Most everything I have seen indicates that we are definitely competitive….There was a piece done…a couple of weeks ago…where they took a two week schedule and compared everybody and…

Fred came in 2nd on that one?

That’s exactly right.

I know which one you’re talking about (Link here)

…There are periods of time when we are focusing on fund raising or preparing for debates and we’re not going to be quite as visible as the other guys. If you’re Governor Romney, you don’t have to do fund raisers if you don’t want to and the same goes, I think, for the mayor to a certain extent.

Fred was raising money at a clip far higher than that of any of his rivals at the end of the third quarter. Is that still continuing? Do you expect Fred to raise more money than any of the other Republican candidates in the 4th quarter?

No, I don’t expect that we’ll raise more than any of the other candidates. I think that we will be competitive. I think that Governor Romney has pretty much set a pattern of waiting until the end and contributing to his campaign whatever amount he needs to have raised the most that quarter.

But, to be honest with you, John, and I am pretty consistent, you can find quotes to this effect out there, I honestly do not believe that money is going to be determinate in this campaign. I think if you look at the current status of the race, with Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney and where they stand nationally, that’s the most clear indication….

Given that Massachusetts is next door to New Hampshire and shares some of the same media markets, do you think Mitt Romney should get a lot of credit for being ahead in New Hampshire or should Mitt’s victory, if he pulls it off, be treated almost like a near meaningless home state win?

I think a lot depends upon the circumstances of the win. We’re already seeing how fast things can change once voters really start to focus in on the campaign.

Here we are, what, 30 days from the very first contest, and we’re looking at somebody who, probably sixty days ago, maybe even less than that, but definitely 60 days ago, no one would have thought would be leading nationally in some of the polls out there…

That (shows) there is a tremendous amount of volatility for Republicans looking for the right conservative and ultimately, it’s my view that after they take a look at all of these candidates, they’ll come to the conclusion that Fred is the right conservative for them and the most electable against Senator Clinton, if in fact she’s the nominee….

Speaking of New Hampshire, Fred’s numbers are really bad there. He’s even tied with Ron Paul in the latest poll I saw, down at around 4%. Why is that the case? Are you guys not putting in a lot of time there?

We have invested hardly any resources in New Hampshire. We felt from the beginning, John, that Iowa was more oriented towards Fred’s personal style, his Southern roots, the fact that Iowa is more of a small town state similar to Tennessee in many respects.

…Also, if you do reasonably well in Iowa, you have the possibility of getting a bounce and gaining some ground in New Hampshire, (and) the proximity of those two states now, in terms of the calender, will make the bounce more…profound.

…The bounce is not going to dissipate like it did when I was involved in Bob Dole’s campaign in 1988. We won Iowa and went ahead in New Hampshire and there was enough time for Vice-President Bush to make a charge and come back at us. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

But, we really feel that our strong state is South Carolina and we’ve got to get our ticket punched to get there. Getting our ticket punched to get there means a strong showing in Iowa, picking up some delegates in some of the early caucus or primary states, like Wyoming, and then going into South Carolina with the voters there saying, “I like what this guy stands for and he still has a chance to win.”Fred recently said the following about Iowa, “I probably don’t have to win, but I have to do better than [fourth], and I’m planning on doing better than that. …We’re about where we need to be right now. We haven’t spent as much time out here. We didn’t get in the race as early as some others, but we’re going to make up for lost time.”

Currently, Fred’s in 4th place, but within striking distance of Giuliani in third. What’s Fred strategy in Iowa and what happens if he doesn’t finish at least 3rd in Iowa?

Let’s do the first part of that question: I think that very clearly, our strategy at this point is to continue to emphasize that Fred is the authentic conservative. He’s the guy who has been a conservative his entire career. As Rush Limbaugh said…on the air last week, he has not wavered…, one way or the other, he has been very solid and consistent….He has very specific policy proposals that are very bold and are attracting a lot of praise and a lot of attention.

…The 2nd part of it is, and this is something a lot of people are not aware of, we have a very strong ground game in Iowa. …We’re augmenting that with an aggressive mail program and an aggressive voter ID, turnout program. Also, we’re running some strong media out there. I think all those things will help…and the final piece of it is that Fred will be spending a huge amount of time out there just before and just after Christmas. …We believe that presents us with a wonderful opportunity for us to bump up a position or two.

As to your second question, you can’t define objectively what you have to do because it’s hard to do it that way, in terms of position. If we finish in a strong way and come from way back, we might have a four way dead heat or something like that. It’s not totally likely, but stranger things have happened. So, I wouldn’t personally say we have to finish X, Y, Z to get our ticket punched. Obviously, the higher up you finish, the much better chance we have of going into South Carolina with a strong campaign.

It is fair to say that South Carolina is a must-win state for Fred, isn’t it? Sort of, if he can’t win there, he-can’t-win-anywhere state?

I would never say some place is a must-win, John, just because that’s not prudent politics, but I think, if there’s not a very good reason for us not to have won — again, you never know the context. This is what I keep emphasizing. …Most of the polls I have seen have it as basically a three way dead heat…

Right. Fred, Rudy, and Romney are all tied right up there (Since our conversation, the latest poll has Rudy plunging, and Huckabee vaulting to the top of the heap)

It’s going to depend on what happens in Iowa, what happens in New Hampshire, and how the polls move around after that. As you know from following this, so much of this is “What are the expectations?” Do you better them or do you not? So, I would never say that is an absolute, must-win state. I would say that South Carolina should be one of our strongest early states and I think Iowa would ultimately fall into that category as well, but I don’t think we have as strong a cultural connection there. You know, South Carolina is southern, Tennessee is southern, but we do have a very strong campaign in Iowa.

Now, tell us a little bit about the decision to go negative with Fred’s ad in the debate. That was a bold choice. Why did you decide to do that instead of going with a positive Thompson ad?

First of all, people in the mainstream media would never buy this, but I find bloggers, in this respect, are more subtle sometimes…

Are you getting ready to say that it’s not really a negative ad because…

That’s exactly what I’m getting ready to say.

(Laughing) That’s true.

I’m gonna say that if they said it in the past and they said it on tape…it’s not negative. We’re just literally taking something they’ve said and they’ve done (and putting it out there). I just don’t personally view that as being negative.

You’re right. …Technically, it’s not negative…but, why did you decide to go with an ad to push the other candidates down instead of pushing Fred up?

I think the idea was to start to get people to think about, in this case, …the two governors, their past records, and what they’ve done, and to understand that one of Fred’s big advantages is that he’s a consistent conservative, that everybody in the race has been in different positions in the past.

…The other piece of it was that we wanted to try to get some people to go take a look at the two minute version of it on our website, which I think is a very strong piece that I think completes the trilogy by adding Mayor Giuliani and a couple of his comments and then finishes with a strong, very positive 30 seconds on Fred. We thought that was more likely to catch people’s attention and drive them to the website…

Well, you know it worked. I don’t even remember what any of the other ads were at this point. Yours did stick out at least.

It did get some attention.

Early on, before Fred got into the race, there was a lot of talk about his campaign being primarily based around the new media. Obviously that hasn’t happened, although Fred has done a good job of reaching out to the new media and has drawn the most support amongst conservatives online. Tell us why the thinking changed.

Well, I can only tell you about it from my perspective. I came in back in very early August, and my goal was to continue an aggressive new media effort. But, (I wanted) to augment it by building a traditionally run communications shop and by building a campaign that could support the needs of the presidential candidate.

Essentially, I think what we’ve tried to do is unconventional — a hybrid campaign almost. We’ve kind of tried to utilize both. There are days when, frankly, I wish that we did one or the other better, but we try to pay attention to all of them, try to make ourselves available to folks like you, and I’ve done a couple of conference calls with bloggers. I don’t know if you participated in them…

Sure did, actually.

We’ve tried to make it a mix and I think that has been, so far, pretty successful.

Let’s say a fan of Fred comes up to you and says, “If Fred wins the nomination, tell me how he could beat Hillary?” Give us an idea of what you would tell him about how Fred could beat Hillary Clinton.

The first thing I will tell you, John, is that I have been quoted 2 or 3 times during the campaign as saying, since I arrived on the scene in August and since there was so much work to be done to win the nomination, I have been repeatedly quoted as saying that I spent about 3 seconds trying to figure out how to win the general election. Let me say that as a very honest caveat.

But, what I think Fred Thompson has going for him in the general election, and this is true whether it’s Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, or Senator Edwards that he’s running against is,

#1) He’s a good, solid conservative.

#2) His image is…thoughtful and non-threatening. What I think makes Fred an absolutely superior general election candidate is that his rhetoric is not going to scare people. His policies are going to be thoughtful. It will be a little bit Reaganesque because people will disagree with his policies, but they will respect him as an individual. That offers our party a wonderful opportunity to bust out of this total “us vs. them” mentality and to reach out to the other side of the aisle, to some of the more conservative Democrats, to get them supporting the Republican nominee for President.

I think Fred has improved as a candidate dramatically in the last four months. He has done well in the debates he has been in and has steadily improved. He is a very, very capable candidate and I think he is someone that the Republican Party can very easily rally around. He is really acceptable to everyone. He is not acceptable to very few in the party. I think he can ignite the faithful of the party, he can reach out to others, and…his policies are the most conservative, in a reasonable way, of any of the Republican candidates. (Also), I think he would be viewed as less threatening and more genuine. That is (something) that would work very well for him in the general election.

Now, I know you guys war game out different scenarios, so how about this: give us a scenario of how things would break down, state by state, all the way up to Super Tuesday, that would produce a Fred Thompson win.

Oh gosh, John, that’s really tricky. All the way up to Super Tuesday?

Well, you don’t have to give me Maine or anything and I understand that this is just something that could happen…But, what I keep hearing from Fred’s fans out there is that they love Fred, they think he’s doing well, but they keep hearing from these Inside-the-Beltway pundits and Fox News, etc., that say Fred’s done, that Fred can’t win. So, can he win? I mean, I can…see how it (would be done), but I just want to hear it from you.

Well, I think it works in the following pieces. First of all, go back to the notion that we discussed a few minutes ago, that South Carolina is kind of our bellwether, it’s kind of the state we have to count on.

But, let me go to the premise that once the process starts, that there is going to be this tidal wave effect on succeeding states. In other words, my view is that by spending a lot of money, as Romney has done in these early states, — if he wins those early states, that money is well spent. If he loses those states, he has wasted that money because perceptions and positioning in the race will change overnight…

So, the language I have used with others is that we have to build a strategic bridge through the early states to South Carolina. In other words, we have to do well enough to survive until South Carolina with the average Republican saying, “I like this guy and I think he can win.” That puts us in the best possible position for South Carolina. I think that requires a strong showing in Iowa and as I said before, I am not prepared to tell you precisely what that means. I think a strong showing, that exceeds expectations, will start driving up our fundraising, which will obviously happen to anyone who exceeds expectations and is still in the game at that point, and it will gets voters to take a second look…Then, if we do really well in South Carolina, after picking up a few delegates, say in Wyoming, and picking them up on a targeted basis in some of the other states, we go into Florida and there, (it depends on) what has been happening so far. If Mayor Giuliani has not won a primary before Florida, the question is, what’s the condition of his campaign and can he buy a win there? Very clearly, he would have more money than we do at that point, I would think, …but money is not the determinate. Once you get the primaries going, it’s the national coverage, the attention you guys give the campaigns, …that can put us in a position to capture a decent share of the delegates in Florida. Then you go into Super Tuesday, where you have…a lot of strong Southern and Mid-Western states, after Fred has had a strong showing in South Carolina and Florida and that would put us in a strong position….

Last question: everyone seems to be assuming that the race will be over after Super Tuesday on Feb 5. Do you think that’s a safe assumption, especially given that we have four different candidates who appear capable of winning a primary before Super Tuesday?

Well, I think that there are 5 candidates who…

I don’t think McCain can win a primary. I think New Hampshire is his best bet and he’s too far behind to beat Romney since it’s almost a home state for him.

You could be right about that.

To answer your question, I don’t believe any assumption is safe in this campaign. This is one of the most volatile, fluid, wide-open races that I have ever seen.

As a matter of fact, in every presidential nomination fight that I have worked in has had a very strong, dominant front runner in the race and every time that individual got tested, knocked around a few times, and then finally came back and won the nomination. There is nobody like that in this race. People need to remember that. We all talk about, the calender is compressed, the campaigns are starting so much earlier in the cycle, and all those kind of things, but…it’s totally wide open. So, I don’t think you can trust any assumption in this cycle. I think everything is up for grabs.

Okay. I really appreciate your time.

John, I was happy to do it, nice to talk to you.

You can read more about Fred Thompson at his website, here. If you’re so inclined, you can also donate money to his campaign, here.

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