Thompson Generates Buzz in Richmond

One of the gala attendees called Thompson
One of the gala attendees called Thompson "very presidential-appearing" but predicted the TV star would be tested by "chary" party members. (Brendan Smialowski - Getty Images)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007

RICHMOND, June 2 -- Actor and former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee rallied a crowd of several hundred Republicans here last night, offering a bluntly conservative appeal in his first major appearance since taking a formal step last week to run for president.

"Folks, we're a bit down politically right now, but I think we're on the comeback trail, and it's going to start right here," he declared in the deep Southern rumble made famous by his roles in film and on television's "Law and Order."

The speech at a state Republican Party fundraiser came the day after Thompson filed papers to create a fundraising committee, delivering a jolt to a GOP race in which no one has seized a decisive edge. Many Republicans have lamented that none of the top three candidates can carry a mainstream conservative banner, citing former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's moderate stance on abortion and other social issues, Arizona Sen. John McCain's positions on campaign finance reform and immigration, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's recent rightward conversion on issues such as gun control.

Thompson, meanwhile, is trumpeted by his supporters as a traditional Republican who, with his actor's skills, could effectively communicate the party's message.

"As a candidate, he's got instant credibility. He has very solid conservative credentials," said state Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, who has not endorsed anyone. "He's a pretty articulate voice for the conservative cause. He will be a force in the race right away."

Thompson managed to hit most major conservative themes in his 35-minute address. He traced the formation of his political philosophy to Barry Goldwater. While he did not directly invoke Ronald Reagan, to whom his supporters compare him, he closed his speech by echoing the former president's call for "optimism." He dwelled on the need for a strong national defense -- although he barely mentioned the Iraq war -- and urged an increase in defense spending, noting yesterday's reports of a foiled plot targeting New York's John F. Kennedy Airport as proof of terrorism's threat.

"This is a battle between the forces of civilization and of evil," he said.

He warned against Democratic proposals to repeal tax cuts and against liberal judges, noting that he helped shepherd Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. through his Senate confirmation.

But he received his biggest applause for blasting the bipartisan plan for immigration reform, which he called unworkable. "We are a nation of compassion, a nation of immigrants," he said. "But this is our home . . . and we get to decide who comes into our home."

Thompson reminded guests that he now lives in McLean, but he offered himself as a Beltway outsider, saying there was a "disconnect" between Washington and the rest of the country "like I've never seen before." He said the GOP had lost its congressional majorities because "some of us came to drain the swamp and made partnership with the alligators."

The speech, which was scheduled before Thompson's filing last week, generated uncustomary buzz for the state party's annual Commonwealth Gala. The $125-a-plate dinner drew 425 guests, up 70 percent from a year earlier, and 66 reporters to the Richmond convention center.

Before his speech, Thompson ambled through the room, looming over tables with his tall, 6-foot-5-inch frame and clasping guests on the back with a big hand. While some guests said they were leaning toward other candidates, others expressed relief at Thompson's emergence.

"There's a conservative void in the field running right now," said Joshua Morris, 25, of Centreville, who does direct-mail fundraising for nonprofits. "None of the other candidates excite me. I'll be going to his Northern Virginia office to sign up as soon as it opens."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company