Thompson's Politics Much Like McCain's

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007

Fred Thompson fervently backed the Iraq war, railed against an expanding federal government, took stands that occasionally annoyed his party and rarely spoke about his views on social issues during his tenure as a senator from Tennessee or in his writings and speeches since leaving office.

In short, the man some in the GOP are touting as a dream candidate has often sounded like the presidential hopeful many of them seem ready to dismiss: Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

With some in the party clamoring for an alternative to their current field of presidential contenders and Thompson's allies hinting strongly that he will run, 400 conservatives flocked to Newport Beach, Calif., on Friday night to hear the actor-turned-politician-turned-actor address the annual dinner of the Lincoln Club of Orange County, a group that credits itself with pushing Ronald Reagan to run for governor of California in the 1960s. Thompson delivered a vision of cutting taxes, reducing the size of government, overhauling Social Security and staying in Iraq until "there is some semblance of stability."

He also called for "reform-minded, change-minded leaders," a profile that McCain -- whom Thompson described as "a man of the highest integrity and courage" in 1999 when he co-chaired the Arizonan's presidential run -- has worked hard to lay claim to over the past decade. Thompson was one of only four GOP senators to back McCain's bid in 2000, and a former aide to the Tennessean said McCain "was far and away his best friend in the Senate."

Within the party, some argue that McCain is too unpredictable or too closely tied to President Bush's Iraq policy, others that former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney are unreliable on core party issues or could not win a general election -- and such complaints have helped fuel the push for Thompson, who left the Senate in 2003 and returned to acting. He now plays District Attorney Arthur Branch on the NBC series "Law & Order."

With encouragement from top Republicans such as former Senate majority leaders Howard Baker and Bill Frist (both Tennesseans), Thompson is taking all the steps to ready for a presidential run, meeting with members of Congress, talking to former aides about how to organize a campaign and posting to conservative blogs.

Sources familiar with Thompson's plans said he will probably decide whether to run by next month, although he might delay an official announcement until as late as Labor Day. "I think a lot of people feel there's not a real Reagan-type conservative and see him as the guy who can fulfill that role," said former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.), who now runs a conservative activist group called FreedomWorks.

Both before and after his first presidential run, McCain battled with GOP leaders over his proposals to overhaul campaign finance laws. Thompson was perhaps McCain's strongest Republican supporter, even advocating an early version of McCain's bill that would have banned contributions from political action committees. (In recent interviews, he has complained that the enacted law has not had the effect that was intended.)

Like McCain, Thompson compiled a fairly conservative record in the Senate, earning a lifetime rating of 86 out of 100 from the American Conservative Union, putting him slightly ahead of McCain (82), but behind Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), another 2008 hopeful, who scored a 94.

Thompson not only voted for the Iraq war in 2002 but also has strongly defended Bush's decision-making, even though he, like McCain, has said the administration should have sent more troops in originally. In a 2004 speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Thompson said that "every politician that describes Iraq as another Vietnam gives our enemies hope for success."

"If someone says, 'This is Vietnam,' they're predicting defeat," Thompson said. "They're predicting an early pullout. I think that is irresponsible."

He called for "regime change" in Iran in a recent interview with the Weekly Standard, although he did not detail how that would happen.

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