Get a life

Back in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower only agreed to run for president after he was told he'd won the New Hampshire primary -- for which his name had been placed on the ballot without his official participation.

That was eight months before the November election. Heck, in those days active campaigning didn't get under way till after the parties' summer nominating conventions, since that was where the parties -- hold onto your chairs -- actually chose their nominees.

Which brings us to the absurd fact that -- if "Law & Order" actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson announces his candidacy for the Republican nomination over the Labor Day weekend as expected -- he will find himself both criticized for not playing fair, and complimented for his canniness at having "waited so long"!

In fact, that criticism has already begun.

Lane Hudson, an Internet gadfly, filed a complaint with the FEC on Monday, accusing Sen. Thompson of illegally raising more money than he needs to decide whether to run for president.

Federal law allows potential candidates to raise money to travel, conduct polls and pay for other expenses related to "testing the waters" for a political campaign, without any requirement that the prospective candidate file financial reports with the Federal Elections Commission during that exploratory period.

But the law prohibits anyone who is "testing the waters" from hoarding the money thus raised for use during his actual campaign. "We're following the law," Thompson spokesman Jim Mills said in response to the complaint.

The law is fairly absurd in its nitpicking detail. Attempting to limit how much money a candidate can raise, or from where, or how he or she spends it, are all constitutionally dubious.

The most sensible goal of the campaign finance laws is to allow voters to figure out who's financing these candidates. Huge contributions from teacher unions or mining companies are far better indicators of where a candidate will come down on issues related to those parties than any carefully massaged campaign sound bites.

But to do that, the law has to choose a "start date." And the official announcement of candidacy seems an obvious date to choose. After all, many expect that Jeb Bush or Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or even Chelsea Clinton might someday feel the tug of presidential ambition. Would the pettifogging Mr. Hudson like to see them ordered to start submitting their bank statements to the FEC right now, "just in case"?

If Sen. Thompson is as politically savvy as he appears, he will reveal the sources of all the money he has raised to date, whether he is technically required to do so or not.

Under federal guidelines, the FEC will now give Sen. Thompson 15 days to respond to the complaint. At that point, it's highly likely he will be an announced candidate, and this complaint will be dismissed under the "get a life" rule.

As it should be.