A Costly Near-Miss for Thompson

After months of “testing the water,” Fred Thompson finally made it official last night that he is indeed seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Seeking to make a splash in the race, Thompson skipped the scheduled GOP debate in New Hampshire, choosing instead to appear on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” to make the announcement  –  a move that seems to have irked his fellow Republican hopefuls.

While Thompson’s entry into the race and the manner in which he made it were expected, what would have really shaken up the Republican primary was if he could have walked onto the scene with the backing of the extremely influential Arlington Group, which very nearly happened, according to various sources.  

On the September 5 edition of “Special Report with Brit Hume,” Fox News Chief Political Correspondent Carl Cameron reported:

[Thompson] has four months now to court conservatives that others have spent the whole year wooing. One example, the highly-influential Arlington Group, which is made up of various conservative and religious organizations and leaders, including Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate and former head of the Family Research Council.

Sources say the Arlington Group had planned to throw its support behind Thompson tomorrow when he announces. That is now on hold because last week on the “National Review Online,” Thompson aides said he would oppose a constitutional amendment that religious conservatives support banning gay marriage.

The National Review’s “The Campaign Spot” reports the same:

A reliable source has told me of huge, potentially bad news for the Thompson campaign — there is a very influential group of social and religious conservatives called the Arlington Group. Thompson addressed them earlier this year and, I was told, wowed them. It looked like he was going to collect a slew of impressive endorsements.

I’ve just been told that that group may be ready to say that they’re not impressed with Thompson in recent months.

The Arlington Group is a coalition of dozens of powerful and influential right-wing organizations, which includes the likes of the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, American Values, the Free Congress Foundation, Vision America, and others.  

The Boston Globe reported earlier this year that Republican candidates were eagerly courting the Arlington Group precisely because of the tremendous influence its members possess:

Leaders of the group have interviewed Huckabee, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, US Representative Duncan Hunter of California, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who hasn’t entered the race but may later this year. It’s not clear which other candidates have been or will be interviewed. The group has not yet questioned Romney, Senator John McCain of Arizona, or former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, according to those campaigns.

Because the Arlington Group is made up of many nonprofit organizations and ministries — which, by law, cannot officially advocate for political candidates — the coalition is not expected to explicitly endorse anyone. Instead, according to members of the group and two Republicans close to it, the conservative leaders hope to coalesce around one candidate that prominent members such as James Dobson, who heads Colorado-based Focus on the Family, could endorse individually. Dobson, for example, is free to say as a private citizen that he supports a certain candidate, a personal endorsement sure to influence many of his followers.

The group or its leaders might not even reach a consensus — a similar effort in the 2000 race ended without agreement, and many conservatives have expressed frustration at the lack of a clear choice in the 2008 contest. But if they do, the political potential for that candidate would be significant. The Arlington Group encompasses roughly 70 grass-roots organizations around the country said to reach tens of millions of people collectively.

“It is our desire that all of us, in a united effort, could marshal our resources to the same end,” said one member of the group, who spoke on condition of anonymity, because members agreed not to disclose the discussions publicly.

In a Republican primary in which the current candidates are actively courting support from the right-wing political leaders and organizations, receiving the stamp of approval from the Arlington Group would have been a significant development in Thompson’s campaign and delivered a tremendous boost for his chances of winning the nomination.  

But it appears as if, at least for the time being, Thompson has lost that opportunity primarily because of his waffling on the question of whether he would “actively push a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage” were he to be elected president.