Leno's Couch No Substitute for Town Hall Meetings

Like It or Not, Winning the 202 Area Code Is the Key

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Even bumper stickers agree: All politics is local. From the aspiring town-board member to the next president of the U.S., every one of them has to do the small-town America tour. That's why every four years the so-called East Coast elites have to hold their noses and pretend to care about Iowa and New Hampshire.

So it's odd that Fred Thompson, one of the two Republican candidates to grab the popular imagination (the other being Rudy Giuliani), will be making his "official announcement" not from the campaign trail (in the traditional sense of the term), but from the couch on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

At first glance, this would seem a no-brainer. A national late-night audience is far preferable than a couple of thousand diehards in New Hampshire. Thompson's communications director, Todd Harris, told the Examiner: "It makes a lot of sense" for Thompson to appear on the Leno show instead of the GOP debate because the candidate will reach "everyday normal Americans who don't live in the 202 area code." Besides, he added, there'll be plenty of time for all of those debates later.

Sounds like common sense, but it's actually a pretty big gamble. Fred Thompson could conceivably win the hearts and minds of 75% of the nation, but if he doesn't make a showing in Iowa or New Hampshire, he's toast. Even with other states threatening to unseat Iowa and New Hampshire from the primary throne, those two states are vitally important. It could be argued that with all of the primary confusion in the upcoming election, the two states will be even more important.

The other candidates certainly are aware of this. Mitt Romney even took the opportunity to take some swipes at Thompson. "We all get the chance to go on the talk shows. But it's not the sort of questions you get in the debates or the town meetings that I've had," he told the Associated Press "I think it will boost the ratings for Jay Leno's show, but I'd rather be doing well in New Hampshire," he said to another group of reporters.

Of course, there's some old-fashioned kissing up to the Granite State in those comments, but Romney knows it's true -- and it's why he's spending huge sums of money and time in New Hampshire and Iowa. As are the other candidates, including the Republican leading in most national polls -- Rudy Giuliani. I find the idea of Giuliani traipsing about the farmlands of Iowa slightly absurd. Yet Giuliani is (or should be) well aware that national polls mean absolutely nothing in a presidential election decided on a state-by-state basis, and they mean even less when it comes to primaries.

And John McCain provides an object lesson in just what a late-night-talk-show announcement and national media support are worth in primary season.

Oddly enough, at this stage of the game, Thompson doesn't have to grab the media spotlight or fire up the nation. He has to convince hardheaded, no-nonsense voters in New Hampshire that he means business. Obviously, repeated delays with that "official announcement"—a phrase that has lost all meaning at this point—and continual campaign-staff shake-ups aren't helping him any.

On the other side of the political equation, the press (including me) have made it a battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. John Edwards is mentioned mostly in terms of his repeated PR blunders -- the haircut, the whining tone, the blatant hypocrisy of his populist approach. Yet he keeps plugging away in Iowa. He might be coming in third in all national polls, but on some days he comes in first in Iowa. And while he hasn't picked up the endorsements of such luminaries as Oprah Winfrey (Obama) or Anne Rice (Clinton), Edwards has picked up endorsements from The United Steelworkers (USW), the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in America.

Sexy, no? But they do have that down-home vibe -- and a lot of members who will actually show up and vote in the primaries.

That said, neither Clinton nor Obama is taking Edwards lightly in Iowa. In fact, the Obama campaign sent out an e-mail to supporters on the afternoon of Sept. 4 reminding them of some very recent history: "In mid-September 2003, national polls showed Joe Lieberman to be the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Then John Kerry won the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, and the shift in momentum carried him to a decisive victory."

For whatever reason, there's no mention of Howard Dean and his now-infamous implosion. That may be by design, however, as this e-mail strategy strikes me as a Dean-type tactic: Reach out to supporters across the nation to shore up efforts in Iowa. I don't know how much that will help. Though the evidence was mostly anecdotal, one of the theories for Dean's failing in Iowa was that the locals didn't take kindly to a bunch of aggressive out-of-towners showing up and telling them how to vote.

Still, Obama's message is extremely clear and shows that his campaign knows just how important Iowa and New Hampshire remain. "The lesson: Early polls don't mean a thing, and success in crucial early-state contests will win the Democratic nomination."

And Thompson must realize that it'll win the Republican nomination, too.