The Fall Kickoff

That, and other news, in today’s Political Panorama.

The day after Labor Day marks the time when campaigns go into overdrive, with just months to go before the primaries. Suddenly, all of the insanely early campaigning doesn’t look so far away. As I write in Variety, the Clinton and Obama camps are still planning a vigorous schedule of fund-raisers, led by Oprah Winfrey’s event on Saturday, when some 1,500 people are expected at her Montecito estate.

But the real game-changer will come on Wednesday, when Fred Thompson “teases” his campaign announcement as a guest on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,”  and then enters what are expected to be three make-or-break weeks of campaigning.  There are doubters that he can manage to put up with the rigors of retail campaigning, according to the latest issue of Newsweek. “As he prepares to formally begin his campaign for the White House this week, after months of “testing the waters,” the conventional wisdom in Washington is that Thompson doesn’t want it badly enough, isn’t willing to work hard enough—put bluntly, that he is lazy. “He needs to show he has the appetite for a presidential campaign, and he hasn’t shown that yet,” says a top White House official who did not want to be named sticking a knife in the back of a fellow Republican. “It’s the hardest work in the world. I’m not sure he wants to work that hard.”” As the article points out, Thompson had little patience with Congress, and the laborious gamesmanship involved in passing legislation. He once quipped that he “longed for the sincerity of Hollywood.”

Over the coming days, expect quite a bit of analysis that compares Thompson to Ronald Reagan. But their Hollywood backgrounds could not be more different. Reagan was bred in the industry’s studio system, rising to leading man and president of the Screen Actors Guild. Thompson fell into the acting profession, starting with the 1985 film “Marie,” in which he essentially plays himself. Unlike Reagan, he never rose to leading man status and was seldom a fixture in the Hollywood scene, other than for premieres of movies in which he’s appeared. His “Law & Order” days have allowed him to shoot episodes in New York and maintain a presence as a lobbyist in Washington.

Why Not Debate?: Thompson’s camp defends the decision to do “The Tonight Show” rather than participate in a GOP debate on Wednesday. What’s more, Thompson will be running an ad during the middle of the debate. Says spokesman Todd Harris: “For every person watching that debate who thinks they’ve made up their mind, there are probably going to be 20 who haven’t decided.”

Obama Ovation: At the premiere of “Michael Clayton” at the Venice Film Festival, George Clooney offered some more praise for Barack Obama. “You’ve been in a room once in a while with a rock star. He walks in…and he takes your breath away. I’d love him to be president, quite honestly.” But Clooney generated some criticism for appearing in a recent Nestle ad. Baby Milk Action, which is boycotting the company over the marketing of baby foods.

Venice Vehemence: The war in Iraq and tensions in the Middle East dominated this year’s Venice Film Festival, reports Variety’s Ali Jaafar. And in the political spirit of the event, some performers didn’t spare criticism of President Bush. Among them: George Clooney and Charlize Theron. “What’s interesting to me is how do the bad people among us end up our leaders?” Richard Gere, promoting his film “The Hunting Party,” said at a news conference.

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