Thursday, September 06, 2007

Lincoln and Thompson: The Stealth Candidates

The spectacle of Fred Thompson, declaring his candidacy for the Presidency before a cost-free audience numbering in the millions on the Tonight show yesterday evening, while his nine rivals appeared before a much smaller Fox Cable audience at the New Hampshire GOP debate, reminded me of the book in which I am currently immersed, Team of Rivals: The Political Geninius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Until Ms. Goodwin's best-selling political history, few people realized or appreciated that Abraham Lincoln, from the time of his earliest campaigns for Congress, and in his work in organizing and promoting first the Whig Party and later the Republican Party in Illinois, practically invented modern political campaigning. He pioneered the process of organizing his supporters in each precinct to identify which voters were for him or his cause, against him or wavering. He made sure that local precinct workers personally contacted the undecided voters and shored up the wavering voters before election day, and that the party faithful worked on election day to make sure that the likely Whig or Republican voters made it to the polls early. He made sure never to needlessy alienate a rival or seek retribution against a political betrayer, and his magnamity on that score probably allowed him to secure the Republican Presidential nomination, against all odds, in 1860.

In that campaign, Lincoln faced a particularly daunting task. He was a former one-term Congressman, whose opposition to the Mexican War had proven so unpopular that he did not seek re-election, and even then probably lost votes for the Whig Party, which lost his previously safe seat. He had failed twice to win a Senate seat from Illinois (at a time when Senators were chosen by State legislators, not by popular vote), although in his second campaign, against Stephen Douglas, their famous series of debates on the slavery issue had won him some national recognition.

Despite that achievement born of a political defeat, he was a "dark horse" and long shot for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860, who at best might be expected to receive a courtesy "favorite son" nomination from the Illinois delegation at the Republican National Convention, and then bow out after the first ballot. After all, his rivals included some of the best-known and most popular politicians of the day, most eminently New York Senator and former Governor William Seward, who was regarded as the front runner in both the United States and Europe. Other potential nominees, both more widely known than Lincoln, were Salmon Chase of Ohio, the former Senator and Governor, and founder of the Free Soil Party in Ohio, a forerunner of the Republican Party, and an outspoken abolitionist and champion of equal rights for African Americans (which Lincoln was not); and Edward Bates of St. Louis, Missouri.

It was the genius of Lincoln and his campaign managers to recognize that the very prominence of the three better-known candidates meant that none would likely achieve the majority of delegate votes needed to win the nomination in the early ballots. That gave Lincoln an opening. However, had Lincoln openly campaigned for the nomination, the three better-known rivals, who were directing their energies at defeating one another, might have diverted some of their attacks toward Lincoln. By remaining in the background, Lincoln was able to obtain a tremendous coup--securing Chicago, in his home state of Illinois, as the site of the convention. None of his rivals suspected that they were yielding an advantage to a potentially successful candidate.

The Lincoln team continued to out-maneuver its opponents right up to the convention. In the months before the convention, Lincoln embarked on a major speaking tour of the Northeast, establishing himself as a legitimate "second choice" in the minds of many who supported Seward wholeheartedly or lukewarmly. (In contrast, Chase and Bates remained at home and Seward toured Europe.) He obtained a commitment from the Indiana delegation to support his nomination on the first ballot, adding to his strength in the Illinois delegation. And most tellingly, Lincoln detected a weakening in the support of the Ohio delegation for Salmon Chase, caused by unsettled political scores of the sort that Lincoln never allowed to fester in Illinois, and his Lincoln's political operatives took steps to assure that Lincoln would receive the dissident Ohio votes on the first and subsequent ballots. All this was done deliberately, with intense planning and diligent effort.

At the convention itself, held at the Wigwam in Chicago, Lincoln's supporters waged a virtuoso campaign on his behalf. Those supporters included some former political rivals, who in gratitude for the absence of malice on Lincoln's part, in the face of betrayals that had cost him in his Senate campaigns, now went all out to secure him the Presidential nomination. His campaign also was not above some political dirty tricks. When Seward's supporters, accompanied by marching bands and banners, arrived at the Wigwam for the second day of the convention, when nominations and balloting would begin, they found that they could not gain admission to the galleries for non-delegates, because Lincoln's supporters, some of whom had been given counterfeit convention tickets, had already packed the house. Naturally, that meant that Lincoln received the strongest floor demonstration when his name was entered into nomination.

The sum total of this effort was that Lincoln received the nomination on the third ballot, stunning Seward, Chase, Bates and most of the nation.

Now, I am not equating Fred Thompson with Abraham Lincoln. But, for that matter, Rudy Giuliani isn't William Seward either. Mitt Romney, whom I wholeheartedly support, is probably even now less known and supported in the Republican Party than were Chase and Bates in their day. Where I am comparing Lincoln with Thompson is the cleverness of their respective stealth entries into the Presidential campaign. By steering clear of the early jostling, ditching the New Hampshire debate, and announcing his candidacy on the Tonight Show, Thompson has unquestionably stolen a trick on his opponents. Whether he can keep it up remains to be seen, but there is no question that he is a formidable candidate, that his rivals had better not take for granted.


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