By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 2, 2007
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The venue was vintage Fred D. Thompson: a gun shop. Perfect for the down-home, Washington-outsider candidate who campaigned across Tennessee in the 1990s with a red pickup truck, rolled-up shirt sleeves and a straight-talking attitude.
But there was a difference on Thursday. Thompson was dressed in a dark blue suit, a white shirt and shiny black loafers as he chatted with gun purchasers. And as he sped away to visit a diner, it was in a caravan of a black Chevy Suburban and a black GMC Yukon, each with tinted windows and filled with advisers.
Welcome to the Thompson for President campaign.
He hasn't made it official, but an announcement will probably come in the next two weeks, top campaign advisers say. Last Tuesday, the campaign signed a long-term lease on a building in Nashville that will serve as its national headquarters. That night, Thompson raised between $600,000 and $700,000 at a glitzy fundraiser at the home of a Nashville music mogul.
"I'm testing the water, and the water feels real warm," he teased the 300 donors that night as they munched on iced shrimp.
Later, in New Hampshire, the former "Law & Order" television star told an audience of Republican activists, "I don't have any big announcements here tonight."
"Aaaawwww," came the response.
"I plan on seeing a whole lot more of you," Thompson thundered. "How about that?"
But even as he rushes to assemble the infrastructure for a presidential campaign, he is still struggling to define what his candidacy, and a potential Thompson presidency, will be about. Will he embrace his Southern drawl and campaign, as fellow Tennessean Lamar Alexander once did, in a Paul Bunyan-esque shirt? Or will he tout his decades as a Capitol Hill staff member, lobbyist, lawyer, senator and friend to the powerful?
In his first two speeches in important primary states last week, here and in South Carolina, Thompson seemed to suggest he will do both.
"I just came from Nashville, and I don't feel like I've left home," Thompson told a crowd in Columbia, S.C., Wednesday afternoon. He then repeatedly mocked Washington politicians, at one point referring to the "foolishness" in the nation's capital.
At New Hampshire's Wayfarer Inn the next day, Thompson said that the federal government is "not competent to be doing the very basic things it was elected to do in many cases."
When a reporter asked how he can run as an outsider when he has been an insider for so long, Thompson rejected the label.
"I have never used the word 'outsider,' " Thompson scolded his questioner. "It's a delineation that doesn't mean anything. You don't have to be from Alaska or Hawaii to see faults with your government. I've been talking about things wrong with Washington when I was a part of it, before I was a part of it and since I was a part of it."
It's unclear whether the red pickup will resurface as part of his presidential campaign. Some aides are pushing for that image. Others say running for president is different.
"It's not a red pickup kind of campaign," one aide said.
Top advisers say they can finesse the clash between Thompson's anti-Washington theme and his years of service there with a simple message: Washington has lost its connection to the rest of the country.
"The politicians have lost their connection with what people really want and what they really expect," said a senior adviser who requested anonymity to discuss strategy. "The way he views being an outsider would be as someone who views the people inside the Beltway as not connected to the outside."
"It's a thought process, not a physical location," the adviser said of Thompson, who lives inside the Washington Beltway, in McLean.
Thompson's long connections to Washington have already surfaced as potential pitfalls.
Last month, the Democratic National Committee launched a preemptive attack against Thompson, issuing a dossier that described him as "a reliable supporter, defender of President Bush" who played "a key role in Bush Supreme Court nominations" and has a "lobbying career full of landmines."
In particular, the dossier noted Thompson's lobbying efforts on behalf of the failed savings and loan industry in the 1980s and his work as a registered foreign agent for former Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the early 1990s. It also sought to call attention to Thompson's vocal defense of convicted White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
"As part of his role as the ultimate Washington insider, Thompson offered to host yet another fundraising event for Scooter Libby's legal defense fund," the DNC's executive director, Tom McMahon, wrote in an e-mail to party supporters. "Thompson has been vocal in his support of Libby, saying that he would 'absolutely' pardon him."
Thompson's aides dismiss the lobbying criticism as "old news" leveled at him to no avail during his Senate campaigns in Tennessee. And Thompson's support for Libby may earn him points among conservative GOP voters, they say.
For now, Thompson is ignoring all those questions. His campaign doesn't respond to the attacks, and Thompson interacts with the press infrequently -- and usually only with reporters he deems friendly. His trip to New Hampshire last week was covered by Fox News, to whom he gave an exclusive interview.
On the stump, Thompson is still feeling his way.
At Riley's gun shop, he spent only a few minutes, chatting with several employees about how well the instant background check is working (fine, they said.) At the Merrimack Restaurant, a favorite of presidential candidates, he shook a few hands and quickly sat down with his wife and advisers for lunch. (He had a tuna sandwich and potatoes.)
His speeches, while getting better, are a bit unfocused. He often chews on his bottom lip, much as Bill Clinton did, to show he is thinking about an answer. But Thompson's presence is still larger than life, and audience members jumped to their feet several times last week, especially when he criticized the immigration bill that died in Congress.
"The bottom line is what's best for the strength and the long-term endurance of this country," he told the crowd in South Carolina. "And this immigration bill is not it."
The audience erupted in applause. One listener, a civil contractor from Dorchester County named Arthur Bryngelson, said later that he was impressed with Thompson.
"He does not like Washington," Bryngelson said. "He's in politics, but he's not of the Washington gentry."