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Thompson Lags on Hill Support

Even though he spent eight years in the Senate, GOP presidential hopeful Fred Thompson (Tenn.) has failed to corral significant support from his one-time colleagues on Capitol Hill — a reality his backers argue is immaterial and detractors say adds to questions about his electability.

In all, Thompson has secured the nod of four Senators and 17 House Members, fourth among the GOP contenders behind ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who now has 33 Congressional backers, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who has 29, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has captured 24. Most of Thompson’s endorsements came weeks ago.

By themselves, Congressional endorsements don’t equate to victory, but most admit that they do serve as a gauge for the level of enthusiasm for a presidential candidate. And for Thompson — whom pundits have recently started to handicap as a long shot for the GOP nomination — the numbers could be telling.

“They are agnostic about him — and you can’t win a presidential race having a lot of people agnostic about you,” one senior Republican Senate aide said of Members. “The question is whether that lack of fire for him amongst his former colleagues is something that is replicated in the public and whether this is a [microcosm] of the public.”

But if you ask Thompson’s Congressional allies, they flatly argue that House and Senate endorsements — while not irrelevant — matter little for a candidate trying to run a strong ground game in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond.

Thompson’s supporters admit that the former Tennessee Senator hasn’t spent too much effort of late trying to win his one-time colleagues’ favor. But they also believe Thompson’s campaign will not suffer as a result.

“I don’t think endorsements matter much in this day in time,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who succeeded Thompson in the chamber and supports his candidacy. “Endorsements were much more important at a time when voters didn’t know the candidate. Now we know a lot more about the candidates.”

Another Tennessean, Sen. Bob Corker (R), also advised against reading much into the level of lawmaker support for the one-time Senator’s campaign. Corker said Thompson’s energy these days is devoted to shoring up votes in the early nominating states and building up enough of a foundation leading into the mega-primary day of Feb. 5 to secure the Republican nomination.

“Fred has had this unique ability his entire life to walk through doors and things just happen,” Corker said. “He’s been successful in everything he’s done.”

Still, even Thompson’s staunchest allies acknowledge that others often view prominent endorsements as a measure of a candidate’s momentum. And that support can be seen as a broader indicator of whether the party faithful views him as a winnable candidate in a crowded field with no clear frontrunner.

“Endorsements don’t make or break a candidacy,” said one veteran Senate GOP aide. “But they certainly are a barometer for the excitement that can be built behind a candidate. If you don’t have that, it’s a telltale sign that there’s not much excitement behind your candidacy.”

It certainly appears that other Republican 2008 hopefuls think so.

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