San Francisco: Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson's political playbook - a high-profile visit to "The Tonight Show," a splashy bus tour, the efforts to take a familiar actor and reintroduce him in a new political role et al, contains pages that look eerily familiar to California voters.
Maybe that's because the former Tennessee senator has at his side some of the same key aides who, in nine short weeks, helped transform Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger from "The Terminator" into the chief executive of the Democratic-leaning state that is the most populous in the nation.
‘Out-of-the-box’ communication plans
Thompson plans to formally kick off his presidential bid - shaped around the themes of "security, unity and prosperity" - beginning today with a blitz that reflects his media savviness and his advantage as an actor better known to many Americans as District Attorney Arthur Branch on TV's "Law & Order."
Thompson's campaign includes two veterans of another whirlwind effort, the 2003 California recall election that starred Schwarzenegger who knows first hand, at least some of the challenges that lie ahead.
They are Todd Harris, who was Schwarzenegger's campaign communications director and will hold the same title for Thompson, and veteran Republican strategist and Fox News commentator Karen Hanretty, Schwarzenegger's press secretary during the 2003 recall effort, who will be Thompson's deputy communications director.
Adam Mendelsohn, the governor's current communicators director, said the pair provide Thompson "a big-picture thinker out-of-the-box" Harris and "one of the most effective political spokeswomen in the country" Hanretty.
Both are "seasoned in translating the benefits that someone has from working in entertainment into a political reality," he said. "For Fred Thompson, it's a very smart hire: There aren’t enough people who understand what it takes for a national entertainment figure to translate himself into political value."
Commonalities in campaign strategy and implementation
Thompson's roll-out echoes Schwarzenegger's in more than a few ways. As the former move action hero did when he ran against more than 100 gubernatorial candidates in the 2003 recall election, the former Tennessee senator is taking advantage of his entertainment background to separate himself from the political pack. The same night the rest of the Republican presidential candidates are standing behind podiums at a New Hampshire televised debate, he'll be in Burbank, talking to millions of viewers of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."
In 2003, Schwarzenegger raised outcries when he used "The Tonight Show" to announce his surprise recall campaign; four years later, presidential candidates are crowding the couches of talk shows such as Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," "Oprah," "The Late Show with David Letterman" and -- as Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton did Tuesday -- "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."
Thompson will combine his "Tonight Show" appearance with a national campaign ad that is scheduled to run during the GOP's presidential debate. Both events will direct voters to an official announcement of his presidential run on the Internet, where candidates are increasingly eager to deliver their ideas directly to voters.
That will be followed Thursday by another media event that also echoes the Schwarzenegger campaign rollout -- a bus tour through Iowa that will show dozens of reporters the actor morphing into the candidate.
Whirlwind effort to create maximum impact
Thompson, who has been preparing for months for his entry into the race, has been in the top tier of Republican candidates measured by public opinion polls, although many Americans still say they know little about him. As he embarks on what will be a whirlwind effort to capture the GOP nomination, which is almost certain to be decided by 5 February, Thompson is facing some of the same criticisms that Schwarzenegger did four years ago, that the 65-year-old former senator has "no fire in the belly" and is up against veteran politicians who have years of campaign experience.
Hanretty, speaking Tuesday by phone, said the 2003 recall campaign gave her and Harris the pressure-cooker experience to handle the presidential campaign ahead.
"There's nothing closer to a presidential campaign than Arnold Schwarzenegger was in 2003," she said. "The odds were against us. Everyone said it had never been done."
But like Hanretty, Harris, a native of Walnut Creek, Calif., said Thompson has the strengths to take on what many still believe is a role in "Mission Impossible." Thompson, he said, "has the ability to connect with everyday working Americans."
"There are a lot of people who want to engage in politics and want to do something to make the country a better place but who don't watch Sunday morning shows and don't live in the 202 area code," Harris said. "A big part of our campaign is going to be about uniting the country about a shared set of mainstream conservative values. And to do that, we need to reach out to a larger segment of the population than just those who are following politics on a second-by-second basis."
Different political profiles
Republicans say that while Schwarzenegger and Thompson have some common traits as political figures, they are vastly different in political profile; the moderate Schwarzenegger has pushed for health care and green technology, and Thompson, who is far more to the right, has lately stressed anti-abortion credentials and a strong national security theme.
But there are other differences, say leading Democratic operatives who battled it out with Harris and Hanretty in the 2003 campaign.
"The Republican presidential primary isn't the circus that the (California) recall was," said Steve Maviglio, the former spokesman for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, who was unseated in the recall.
And Maviglio said Thompson doesn't compare with the California governor when it comes to star power. "Muttering a few lines at the end of a 'Law & Order' episode isn't the same as a multimillion-dollar blockbuster," Maviglio scoffed. "It doesn't translate."
Harris and Hanretty are "both really worthy additions to the (Thompson) team," South said. But ... the candidate is "an empty vessel into which (the conservative right) are pouring all their hopes. Fred Thompson is no Ronald Reagan," or even an Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"He's not an upbeat individual. He comes off like a grouchy, grumpy old man ... Can you see the words 'shining city on a hill' coming out of Fred Thompson's mouth?"
Harris said the former senator understands he has a relatively short window and very little room for error to persuade voters about his candidacy.
"We have to have a good week -- but we don't have to be perfect," Harris said. "We're going to make mistakes ... but once the public hears directly from Fred and his message on unifying the American people and shared conservative values, they will rally to us."