By LIZ SIDOTI
The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 31, 2007; 9:04 PM
WASHINGTON -- Not yet a declared White House candidate, Republican Fred Thompson may as well be for all his recent stumbles, from a staff shake-up to subpar fundraising to inconsistent answers about his resume.
Despite the difficulties, the "Law & Order" actor and former Tennessee senator continues to post strong marks in national surveys and early primary state polls five months before voting begins.
And his challenge is unchanged: living up to the hopes of dispirited Republicans searching for a conservative to rally around in the wide-open race.
"The expectation levels are sky high right now, so that means if you don't meet them financially, you don't meet them organizationally and you don't meet them message-wise, you're in trouble," said Joe Gaylord, a Republican consultant close to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who also may enter the GOP race.
Thompson has had difficulty on all three fronts in recent weeks:
_Sidelined his campaign-manager-in-waiting and watched a few other aides flee what Republican critics and allies alike describe as a woefully muddled organization in which Thompson's wife, Jeri, has extraordinary control. Other staffers are considering leaving as well, seemingly frustrated with the lack of direction.
_Reported collecting nearly $3.5 million in his first fundraising month, surpassing comparable totals of some likely rivals but lagging his backers' original $5 million goal. GOP officials say subsequent fundraising has fallen off some, which could indicate soft support for Thompson or reflect the traditionally slow summer.
_Fumbled questions about his past lobbying and his current policy positions. He was dogged for weeks by his conflicting answers about whether he lobbied in 1991 for a family planning group. Now, he is under fire for reportedly saying he would sign legislation replacing all federal taxes with a sales tax, only to have his spokeswoman deny such a pledge.
The difficulties appear to be lending credence to months-long skepticism about Thompson's hunger for the quest, including whether he is ready for the rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign and committed to doing the work necessary.
Republican observers, who privately express dismay about the state of Thompson's bid while speculating about him possibly missing his shot, argue in the next breath that there's still time for him to perform well given the uncharacteristically early race and the unsettled GOP field.
Thompson supporters insist they are unfazed.
They dismiss the signs of discontent as inside-Washington issues that voters outside the Beltway will ignore. They attribute any difficulties to growing pains common for a startup campaign.
"Everything's operating just fine," said Mack Mattingly, a former senator from Georgia backing Thompson. "I think we're doing real well in the polls, I think we're doing well in the fundraising areas, and I'm content with the campaign structure."
Another supporter, Carl Ricker, a GOP fundraiser and a real estate developer in Asheville, N.C., argued that Thompson remains in a strong position and said: "He's going to gain more momentum and do even better once he announces formally."
Initially, Thompson's advisers indicated he would enter the race as early as July. But the month came and went, and the tentative plan was pushed back until the fall. The longer timetable allows Thompson to work out the kinks.
Late to the game compared to major rivals Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain, Thompson toyed with the idea of running throughout the spring but only made his intentions clear in early June when he established the "Friends of Fred Thompson, Inc.," committee to "test the waters" of a presidential bid.
He spent the past few months setting up headquarters in Nashville and northern Virginia, hiring a few dozen staffers, giving a few speeches and raising money.
All the while, his supporters have enthusiastically portrayed him as nothing short of the second coming of conservative icon Ronald Reagan. They pumped him up as the Republican who can rally the party's right-leaning establishment and upend the Democratic nominee in the general election.
The expectations for Thompson indeed are high _ perhaps too high. If the past few weeks are any indication, he runs a significant risk of failing to meet them.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Liz Sidoti covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.
(This version CORRECTS the spelling of Asheville, N.C.)