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.
Even with Thompson on the other side of the continent, Wednesday's GOP debate was among the liveliest of the year. Once past an opening question about the missing Thompson, the candidates turned on one another. Romney, Giuliani, McCain and Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) sparred over immigration. McCain chastised Romney over his reluctance to say the "surge" policy in Iraq is clearly working. Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) clashed over whether the United States should stay in Iraq or get out.
When Romney said he believed the troop buildup in Iraq was "apparently working," McCain jumped him. "Governor, the surge is working. The surge is working, sir."
"That's just what I said," Romney responded.
"No, not 'apparently.' It's working," McCain replied.
Moments later, Huckabee and Paul engaged in an even more heated exchange. Paul repeated his call for the United States to pull out of Iraq, to which Huckabee objected. "We bought it and we broke it," he said, adding that the United States must not leave without honor.
Paul said the decision to go to war was made by a handful of neoconservatives who, he argued, hijacked U.S. foreign policy. "They're responsible, not the American people," he said.
"If we make a mistake," Huckabee replied, "we make it as a single country: the United States of America, not the divided states of America."
On immigration, Romney accused Giuliani of coddling illegal immigrants as mayor of New York. "I think saying, as he did, if you happen to be an undocumented alien, we want you in New York, we'll protect you in New York, I think that contributed to 3 million illegals in this country becoming 12 million illegals coming into this country," he said.
"The reality is, my programs and policies led to a city that was the safest large city in the country, so they must have been sensible policies," Giuliani replied.
Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) drew the lone question about Sen. Larry E. Craig (Idaho). Asked about the news that Craig is reconsidering his resignation after being arrested in a Minneapolis airport men's room, both said he should go ahead with his resignation.
Wednesday's 90-minute debate was sponsored by the New Hampshire Republican State Committee, the University of New Hampshire and Fox News Channel and was carried nationally.
Thompson made a brief appearance during the lead-in to the debate when his campaign aired its first commercial. In the ad, he warned that "on the next president's watch, our country will make decisions that will affect our lives and our families far into the future," adding: "We can't allow ourselves to become a weaker, less prosperous and more divided nation."
In his announcement video, Thompson portrays himself as someone from ordinary roots who has enjoyed great success in life. "I have worked for minimum wages, for salaries more than I ever thought I would make, and for everything in between. I have had dinners on the factory floor, while working the graveyard shift, and I have dined with world leaders in foreign capitals."
Thompson plans to hit the campaign trail Thursday morning, boarding a bus in Des Moines for a three-day trek around the perimeter of the state. He is then to spend two days in New Hampshire and a day in South Carolina.
Best known for his portrayal of Arthur Branch, the gruff New York district attorney on "Law & Order," Thompson, 65, began his career in politics when he was recruited by then-Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) to serve as the Republican counsel on the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal.
An early case as a lawyer opened a door to Hollywood, where he appeared in numerous movies over the years. He was elected to the Senate in the 1994 GOP landslide. He left the Senate in 2003, returning to Hollywood and to a lobbying career.
His first marriage ended in divorce. He later remarried, and he has five children from the two marriages.
In April, Thompson revealed that he had been diagnosed with lymphoma in 2004 but said that had been treated and is in remission.
Shear reported from Des Moines.