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Thompson Bid Would Stir Up GOP Race

But his celebrity and relatively late start in the contest mean that Thompson will face immediate challenges that a less-celebrated candidate might not. Questions about his viability would arise if there should be anything less than strong performances in his first debates, in his ability to raise funds quickly, or in rapidly assembling organizations in states with early contests next year.

He is sure to face sharper criticism from those who say that his eight-year Senate record was undistinguished and that his credentials as a conservative are marred by his support of campaign finance reform. Some also say he is a lackadaisical campaigner, pointing to his sometimes rambling maiden speech last month in Orange County, Calif., as evidence that he is overhyped.

"If you're an instant front-runner, you can't afford a subpar performance coming out of the gate," said one GOP strategist, who spoke freely about the campaign on the condition of anonymity.

Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who helps conduct the NBC-Wall Street Journal Poll with Democrat Peter Hart, said an analysis of their most recent poll indicated that Thompson's entry could initially hurt Giuliani and McCain. Polls show that Republicans are more dissatisfied with their candidates than are Democrats, and that pool of voters now leans toward Thompson.

Although Thompson's candidacy could hurt McCain's campaign, McCain's advisers say they do not plan any major adjustments.

"I don't think that it fundamentally changes the strategy of our campaign, which is to put forward John McCain as a candidate ready to lead from Day One," said Terry Nelson, McCain's campaign manager.

The entity Thompson will form this week is one step shy of a formal exploratory committee, but its creation will be his first official step toward entering the race.

On the fundraising call Tuesday, donors were instructed to begin submitting checks to the campaign dated June 4. Each was asked to collect $4,600 from 10 couples -- $2,300 per person is the maximum allowed under federal law. The call was reported by the Weekly Standard's Web site.

Thompson's advisers say they do not expect to match the amount of money others are raising.

"He doesn't need as much money as the others have raised," said one supporter, noting that Thompson's acting career has already given him a boost in the polls.

Thompson has been steadily assembling a circle of advisers. They include former FEC chairman Michael E. Toner, who will serve as general counsel; former Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo; and Tom Collamore, a former executive at Altria, the corporate parent of Philip Morris USA. Collamore will lead the campaign effort, several sources have said. He has hired the firm McLaughlin and Associates to do the polling.

But there is still considerable mystery about who will join Thompson's campaign staff.

Tim Griffin, a Karl Rove protege who was appointed by President Bush to replace the ousted U.S. attorney in Arkansas, declined to comment on reports that he is talking to the campaign about a top-level post. The Justice Department announced late yesterday that he will be resigning his current position on Friday. Griffin served as research director for the Republican National Committee in 2004.

"Everybody's trying to figure out who he's talking to," one unaffiliated GOP strategist said.

Sources say Thompson is heavily influenced by a small group of longtime friends whose political experience dates to the presidencies of Richard M. Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush. They include former senator Howard Baker (Tenn.), who left office in 1985, and former public relations executive Kenneth Rietz, an old Nixon hand. Thompson's wife, Jeri, is said to be his closest adviser. staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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