Thompson Bid Would Stir Up GOP Race

By Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fred D. Thompson will offer himself as a down-home antidote to Washington politics in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, running a campaign out of Nashville while promising leadership on a conservative agenda that will appeal to his party's base, advisers said yesterday.

Thompson's entry will have an immediate impact on the battle for the GOP nomination, adding a fourth candidate to the field's top tier, which includes former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

All three have struggled to win the confidence of conservative Republicans. Thompson will attempt to make the case that he is the true heir to the mantle of Ronald Reagan and, if successful, would become a formidable candidate for the nomination. But Republican strategists cautioned that Thompson will need a more refined message and an error-free start to live up to the publicity surrounding his all-but-certain candidacy.

"That's what the campaign will be all about for him -- persuading a significant portion of the party that he truly is the right leader for a set of issues and an outlook on the world," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

By tomorrow, aides said, the actor and former senator from Tennessee will incorporate a committee called Friends of Fred Thompson and will begin actively raising money for a White House bid. He launched the fundraising effort this week in a conference call with more than 100 supporters, whom he has dubbed his "First Day Founders."

Within the next few weeks, advisers say, a real campaign will take shape, even without a final decision or formal announcement. A Web site will be posted, campaign headquarters will be selected, and a staff will be hired. The signature red pickup truck from Thompson's Senate campaigns will be dusted off.

A senior adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Thompson has not formally announced his intentions, said he is confident about the future.

"This is not someone who is awkward in his own skin," the adviser said. "This will not be a D.C.-centric campaign. He has natural assets that appeal to conservatives, but at the same time he is not threatening to independents and Democrats."

Thompson will give a speech in Virginia this weekend and is scheduled to appear next month on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." An announcement could come as soon as the first week of July, using the hoopla of the national holiday as a backdrop. But those plans are in flux and could change, two sources said yesterday. One source said a formal announcement is likely to come "around that time."

As a lawmaker, Thompson exuded a folksy charm that supporters say could help him capture the attention of many Republican primary voters. His decades of movie and television appearances give him an immediate national presence that rivals that of the others in the campaign. Thompson has played District Attorney Arthur Branch on "Law & Order," but he told the television show he will not return in September, although he did not indicate any political intentions, producer Dick Wolf said in a statement.

Thompson, a senator from 1994 to 2003 and a guest host on Paul Harvey's show on ABC Radio, has already begun to reach out to party conservatives. He has been outspoken in his support of the war in Iraq and blasted the immigration deal reached in the Senate. He recently used a spat with liberal filmmaker Michael Moore to draw attention on conservative blogs, issued a Web video featuring himself chomping a cigar and chiding Moore for going to Cuba to film part of his new documentary.

Republican strategists predicted yesterday that Thompson will get an immediate boost in the polls by entering the race. "I think overnight he becomes the [conservative] alternative," one strategist said.

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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company