For Thompson, It's Showtime

Fred Thompson, who will be among the candidates at today's GOP debate,
Fred Thompson, who will be among the candidates at today's GOP debate, "needs to verify the hope and promise that many voters have placed in him," a Republican consultant said. (By Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

In his month-old quest for the White House, Fred D. Thompson has already endured withering criticism from evangelical leader James Dobson, who observed that the former "Law & Order" star and onetime senator from Tennessee "has no passion, no zeal and no apparent 'want-to.' "

Old friends in Hollywood have been no kinder. Playing a laconic Thompson on "Saturday Night Live" over the weekend, comic Darrell Hammond seized on a story line that has already become conventional wisdom about his presidential bid. "I'm not sayin' I don't want to be your president, because I kinda do," Hammond drawled. "A little bit."

And after helping to create huge expectations for Thompson's late entry into the Republican race, the Washington establishment has proclaimed itself underwhelmed by his early performance. Columnist George Will compared him to New Coke and said his entry into the race was "more belly flop than swan dive."

This afternoon, when Republican presidential candidates gather in Dearborn, Mich., for their sixth major debate, much of the focus will be on the former actor and whether he can seize the moment, not only to distinguish himself from the rest of the field but also to rebut accusations that he is too lazy, too ill-prepared and too vague to be the GOP nominee.

"This is an opportunity for Fred Thompson to chip away at the rap his critics use against him by being very well prepared and very smooth," said Republican consultant Whit Ayres. "He needs to verify the hope and promise that many voters have placed in him."

"He has to overperform," said GOP strategist Alex Vogel, who described what he called a "huge buildup" for Thompson, followed by a "real or perceived letdown." The debate, Vogel said, "is either a real opportunity to kick things into the next gear or a real underperformance."

Before finally announcing after Labor Day, Thompson spent months "testing the waters," and the tease seemed to work. Polls suggested that the non-candidate could rocket to the top of the national surveys once he formally joined the less-than-inspiring field.

That didn't happen, and his performance on the stump since he announced on "The Tonight Show" has been uneven.

Thompson received warm welcomes from crowds, especially in South Carolina. But early on, he called Osama bin Laden more "symbolism" than true threat, and later he suggested that the terrorist should receive "due process." In Florida a few days later, he said he didn't know enough to comment about the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case.

Later in Florida, he said he might drill for oil in the Everglades -- not a popular position in a critical primary state. He angered conservatives by opposing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and acknowledging that he does not regularly attend church.

One rival gleefully began a "gaffe-a-day calendar," tracking Thompson's misstatements under the headline "A gaffe a day keeps the voters away."

Thompson's advisers say they are unfazed by the negative reviews. They say such commentary emanates from inside Washington and does not reflect the powerful connection Thompson is making on the trail.

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