It was a bit rich to hear Fred Thompson complain last Sunday that Fox News wasn't treating him nicely. He has appeared several times on the network in favorable soft interviews. And Sean Hannity was so solicitous after one debate, I thought he was going to ask Thompson for a snuggle. But even if Thompson has no real reason to be peeved, his aides should keep it coming when Thompson joins his colleagues on the debate stage in Florida tonight. Irritation could be just the thing to revive a campaign that is floundering. Here's why:
He's got to do something: Thompson has been falling in the polls since he entered the race. Campaign aides like to summon the tortoise and hare parable, but in Thompson's case, the turtle is walking backward in South Carolina and Florida—the states that were supposed to be his strongest—in Iowa it's at best sleeping, and in New Hampshire it has died. A well-placed knock on Romney and Huckabee could begin to revive Thompson in Iowa, where conservatives might give him a second look. That would help him survive the pounding he's going to take in New Hampshire so that he can perhaps make it to competing in the early Southern states.
Anger shows he has a pulse: Thompson looks in command when he's angry, unlike on the stump, where he has received brutal reviews for his lackluster and listless campaign. With one or two moments of passion, Thompson can show that he's got the energy voters typically look for in candidates. The cliché about showing fire in the belly is overwrought but also true: Voters like to know that a candidate will fight to fulfill the promises he makes on the campaign trail.
Aggression offers more bang for the buck: Thompson is not going to start breaking a sweat on the campaign trail. And while he's winning plaudits for detailed policy proposals and candid ideas about entitlement reform, winning by being the policy wonk requires lead time, and Thompson started his campaign too late for that. So, doing something showy is the best—or perhaps the only—way to generate a little buzz.
He has room to go negative: The heated GOP nominating contest is only going to get more so. Negative ads will start running soon. Still, McCain has to calibrate his attacks because he has a reputation as a hothead. Giuliani has the same problem. If Romney gets too tough, it'll clash with his squeaky-clean image, and he's already created more than enough dissonance by presenting multiple incarnations of himself. Thompson, on the other hand, has the folksy reputation that probably gives him more room to be confrontational.
There are downsides to getting aggressive. Thompson might look desperate, or he might turn off some moderate voters, but it will at least fix one thing that's bugging him. Fox producers, like their colleagues at the other cable channels, like confrontation. If Fred provides a little, it should at least improve his coverage.