Fred Thompson Makes A Late-Night Late Entry

By Dan Balz and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 6, 2007

DURHAM, N.H., Sept. 5 -- After months of testing the waters, former senator Fred Thompson (Tenn.) jumped into the race for the Republican presidential nomination on late-night television Wednesday, as his eight rivals clashed here in a debate that featured sharp exchanges over Iraq and immigration.

Thompson used an appearance on NBC's "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" to kick off his campaign. "I'm running for president of the United States," Thompson told Leno during the show's taping early Wednesday evening.

He followed that up at midnight with a longer video on his campaign Web site outlining his reasons for running, citing threats to national security and the economy and the need to change Washington. "I know that reform is possible in Washington because I have seen it done," he said. "I do not accept it as a fact of life beyond our power to change that the federal government must go on expanding more, taxing more, and spending more forever."

Thompson's Republican rivals appeared unbowed by his entry and used their forum to take potshots at him for skipping the debate. "Maybe we're up past his bedtime," Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) quipped. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani joked: "I think Fred is a really, really good man. I think he's done a pretty good job of playing my part on 'Law & Order.' "

Asked by Leno why he wasn't in New Hampshire, Thompson said, "I'll do my share, but I don't think it's a very enlightening forum, to tell you the truth."

Thompson's long-awaited announcement brings a potentially formidable candidate into the Republican race. His Southern roots, conservative message and celebrity appeal from movies and television have already pushed him into second place in most national polls, behind Giuliani.

But Thompson's late start leaves him well behind his rivals in organizing his campaign in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, where former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has used television ads to build a lead in the polls, and in South Carolina and Florida, where Giuliani is currently ahead.

Thompson's entry could quickly alter the dynamics of a wide-open Republican nomination battle that has evolved rapidly through the course of the year. When the campaign began, McCain was seen as the likeliest candidate to claim front-runner status, but his campaign ran aground by mid-summer.

The summer belonged to Giuliani and Romney. Romney surged in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire and capped off August with a victory in the Iowa Republican straw poll -- a contest that Giuliani, McCain and Thompson skipped. For Giuliani, the summer months helped change a story line that said, despite his celebrity appeal, he had little chance of becoming the Republican nominee because of his support for abortion rights and gay rights. Now he is seen as a credible, if conventional, threat for the nomination.

The summer also helped to establish former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee as the dark-horse candidate with the best chance of surprising one of his better-known rivals.

Now will come another phase in the race, in which Thompson attempts to capitalize on the lack of enthusiasm among Republican voters for their presidential choices. Thompson brings to the race a Southern conservative, something that has been missing since prospective candidates such as former senators George Allen (Va.) and Bill Frist (Tenn.) saw their prospects fade even before the campaign began.

But his start-up period proved extremely rocky. His early fundraising did not set any records, and he went through a succession of senior campaign advisers before recruiting Bill Lacy, who managed his 1994 Senate campaign. Lacy has replaced several high-level advisers with others who have more experience in campaigns.

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