In early March, only a handful of Fred Thompson's good friends knew that he was even thinking about a bid for president. Three months later, according to several polls, Thompson is in second place nationally, trailing frontrunner Rudy Giuliani.
He spends his days raising money and assembling an increasingly sophisticated campaign operation. His advisers hold daily conference calls to discuss issues and to craft a schedule that includes visits to states with early caucuses and primaries. Rival campaigns are adjusting their strategies to account for his inevitable entry into the race.
Ask people closest to Thompson how this happened and they often give you the same story: The former senator simply was minding his business when out of nowhere there arose a powerful Draft Fred movement, the likes of which rarely have been seen in American politics.
"The groundswell for Fred is the closest thing to a real, genuine draft that I've seen in my 40 years of politics," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said recently in Chattanooga.
In truth, we hear some variation of this almost every four years. Average Americans who have never before shown much interest in politics rise up and demand that so-and-so provide the country the leadership it's been lacking. They form a movement.
The reluctant noncandidate says he is surprised and flattered. He promises to give it serious consideration, not because he wants to, of course — he couldn't be happier in his private life, really — but because he owes it to the people.
Think Wes Clark, June 2003: "I'm amazed at the draft movement. It started without any knowledge on my behalf. ... I think it's more a testimony to the crying need in this country and what people see as a need for leadership ... than it is, frankly, a reflection on me."
On that last point, at least, Clark was right.
The Draft Clark movement did lead to a campaign, which went nowhere. And this is worth bearing in mind as a worst-case scenario for Thompson.
The Thompson effort feels different, though. It does have more of a real bottom-up, voter-driven aspect. But that doesn't mean Thompson and his small team — three or four close advisers — sat by passively and waited for a groundswell.
On Nov. 29, 2006, Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist said he would not be running for president. The same day, the Wall Street Journal noted that the announcement "leaves a Republican void in the South, and underscores the absence of any major center-to-right Southern figure in the Republican Party's presidential field thus far."
Others saw the same void. Thompson fielded calls from several friends and former colleagues in the following days.
Spencer Abraham, who had resigned as George W. Bush's secretary of energy shortly after the 2004 election, knew Thompson from their days in the Senate. He urged his old friend to consider running.
Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., called to say much the same thing. In public, there was very little discussion of a possible Thompson candidacy, though he was mentioned as a possible replacement for U.N. ambassador John Bolton.