By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 29, 2007
"Law & Order" star and former U.S. senator Fred Dalton Thompson is considering a bid for the White House that would test whether Hollywood can once again launch a Republican to the world's premier political stage.
His interest, confirmed in a brief interview this week, is generating buzz in Washington. He was third among Republican-leaning voters in a recent Gallup-USA Today survey, behind Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and ahead of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
The onetime senator from Tennessee is known to many Americans for playing New York District Attorney Arthur Branch on "Law & Order" and an admiral in the film "The Hunt for Red October." But his real-life record as a no-nonsense lawmaker who also served as the minority counsel to the Senate Watergate committee is appealing to party activists dissatisfied with the current crop of Republican hopefuls.
"He has a conservative bearing and a conservative presence, but he's independent in his thinking and his voting record," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who added that Thompson is "seriously considering" a presidential campaign at the urging of many friends. "He has a commanding television presence that makes every other politician in America jealous."
Alexander, a friend of 40 years and twice a presidential candidate himself, said Thompson is likely to take his time deciding and could wait to enter the contest until around Labor Day. Recalling a well-attended Washington cocktail gathering held Sunday, Alexander said: "Fred Thompson was the talk of the party."
If he decides to run, Thompson would face many steep challenges, not the least of which is financial. McCain, Giuliani and Romney could each report having raised at least $10 million during the first three months of the year, and it would take months for Thompson, a trial lawyer, to develop the kind of campaign organizations that several others have already built. And Thompson has already drawn fire from some social conservatives.
As a senator, he produced a conservative voting record but broke with the Republican leadership to support McCain's campaign finance legislation. Recently, he joined other Washington politicians who came to the defense of convicted White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Thompson has urged Bush to pardon Libby for lying to investigators.
At the same time, Thompson is a certified television and movie star. His face is seen daily in millions of homes, and his character on "Law & Order" exudes the kind of blunt-spoken, get-it-done leadership that voters tell pollsters they crave.
"I've often said if I had his voice I'd be president of the United States today," McCain, a longtime friend, told Wolf Blitzer on CNN this week. Thompson was among a handful of Senate colleagues who endorsed McCain for president in 2000. Another, Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), is also considering a White House bid.
Thompson traded on his movie and TV celebrity in his 1994 Senate candidacy, when he captured the seat vacated by then-Vice President Al Gore, employing his Southern drawl as he traveled across Tennessee in a bright-red pickup truck.
That image evolved as he campaigned, said Tom Griscom, a press secretary to former senator Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and now editor and publisher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Griscom described Thompson as "sort of a maverick -- very independent-minded and willing to speak what's on his mind."
The idea of a Thompson campaign has been bubbling for a few weeks, and it was given new life this month when the former senator confirmed in an interview on "Fox News Sunday" that he was thinking about it.
"I'm giving some thought to it. Going to leave the door open," he told host Chris Wallace.
In a brief interview Tuesday on his cellphone, Thompson declined to elaborate but said he is still thinking about running. "I'm not talking about that right now," he said, directing calls about the subject to a media consultant.
His supporters -- mostly from Tennessee -- are touting his prospects every chance they get. Baker was the first to float his name. Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) has launched a Draft Thompson Web site at http://www.fred08.com/.
"It is all serious business. This is no flirtation," Wamp said. "People want someone they can trust and someone that is strong. He has charisma coming out of his ears." Wamp said Thompson will spend April 18 on Capitol Hill to talk with former colleagues about his interest in the White House.
Former Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), writing in his blog, has urged Thompson to run and said he recently talked to his former colleague about the idea.
"Now is the time for big ideas . . . big, true conservative ideas that rise above the fray," Frist, who decided against a White House campaign after he left the Senate, wrote last week. "Fred is listening. He will carefully consider running over the next several weeks."
For now, anyway, Thompson's supporters are apparently stuck with reruns of "Law & Order." But his fans could be disappointed on one front if he does ultimately run.
Election law requires that TV stations give all candidates equal time. Experts said Thompson -- like the last movie-star candidate, Ronald Reagan -- would probably vanish from the airwaves except in news programming. That would probably mean that he would leave "Law & Order" and that networks would not air his reruns during the campaign.
In the 1970s and 1980s, stations dropped "Bedtime for Bonzo" and other Reagan movies during his campaigns for governor of California and for president.
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza and Washington Post staff writer Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.