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Welcome to the State, Fred. What Kept You?

In only his second visit to New Hampshire, Thompson shakes hands outside Chez Vacon during a campaign stop in Manchester yesterday.
In only his second visit to New Hampshire, Thompson shakes hands outside Chez Vacon during a campaign stop in Manchester yesterday. (By Jim Cole -- Associated Press)

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By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 10, 2007

STRATHAM, N.H. -- If New Hampshire can offer Fred Thompson some advice, it's that he'd better start spending some time with New Hampshire. New Hampshire has a lot of questions for Fred and it doesn't like to be kept waiting.

Ah! Here he is, finally, pulling up to the farm in a big bus on this Saturday evening, making his way to the stage.

"I understand some people have been looking for me," Thompson tells a crowd of 200 or so folks who are here to eat chili and see the tall, the mysterious, the much-talked-about Fred Thompson. "I'm going to be here early and often."

But wait, Fred. New Hampshire wants to know: Isn't it too late to be early?

In the new timeline of presidential politics, in which 2007 is the new 2008, nobody quite knows just how fast the first primary in the nation will be locked up. Thompson has been here only one other time since he started considering a run for the presidency, while his opponents have been crisscrossing the state for ev er. And it doesn't escape the notice of New Hampshirites that Thompson could've been here last Wednesday if he hadn't decided to skip the Republican debate in Durham and declare his candidacy later that night on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

Skipping New Hampshire to hang out with Jay Leno! What a snub! Even his supporters say they were disappointed. One proud resident uses the phrase "slap in the face."

But enough of that for now. The former Tennessee senator is finally here. Thompson finishes a somewhat passionless speech about security and immigration and why this country shouldn't apologize to anybody, and descends to the crowd to mingle. And the serious, deliberative people of New Hampshire -- who are all too aware of the importance and responsibility of Being New Hampshire -- get to do the thing they're best at. They get to ask questions. Important questions.

Like:

"Does it feel good to be on the ground in New Hampshire, senator?" asks Doug Lambert, a conservative blogger.

"It does indeed," the former senator says, promising, once again, that he'll be visiting this great state "early and often."

Since this is the annual chili-fest put on by a Republican women's group, it is incumbent upon Thompson to meet some Republicans and have some chili. But it proves quite difficult for him to do either. He is enjoying -- and withstanding -- the glare that comes from being the new kid. The reporters stick to him like barnacles, and he is not able to move much or to actually converse with the people of New Hampshire at any length. He signs autographs, poses for pictures. "Bless your heart," he tells people, before the media swarm swallows him up again.

At last, Thompson makes his way to a large garage where food is being served. The air is steamy and chili-scented. He is sweating in his blue dress shirt and answering questions from the media.


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