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For Thompson, Probe's Legacy May Be Political Fallout

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 10, 1997; Page A07

Sen. Fred D. Thompson's public profile may have risen during his recently ended committee hearings on campaign finance abuses, but his willingness to use the committee to promote campaign finance reform and to investigate conservative groups could have damaged any presidential ambitions the Tennessee Republican may have.

Several Republican activists said it was much too early in the search for a GOP candidate to write Thompson off any list of 2000 potentials, but many agreed with one conservative source who said Thompson may have to do "serious penance" to get back in the right's good graces.

William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, said he was a "little puzzled" when Thompson first decided to co-sponsor campaign finance reform legislation widely reviled by most Republicans and conservative interest groups whose activities would be curtailed by the measure.

"This will hurt him among Republican activists," Kristol said. "He would have been better advised to stake out a more moderate position of his own." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the legislation's co-author, remains the preferred candidate "if you're in the GOP and pro-campaign finance reform," Kristol continued.

Also damaging, said conservative political consultant Ralph Reed, was Thompson's willingness to accede to Democrats' demands to seek records and depositions from groups usually allied with Republicans – the Christian Coalition, the National Rifle Association and others.

"I think by being in the uncomfortable position of firing off subpoenas to key organizations in the Republican Party's base, Thompson may have unintentionally angered activists in the party whose support he desperately needs," said Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition.

Thompson has refused to discuss his political ambitions or how the hearings may have affected them: "If I was going to keep my finger in the wind all the time, I probably would have done a lot of things differently," Thompson said. "I don't worry about it."

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's campaign finance investigation opened amid great fanfare – a chance for Republicans to showcase the excesses of President Clinton's reelection effort and a golden opportunity for committee Chairman Thompson to cement his reputation as a GOP rising star.

But the investigation suffered from the outset from bitter partisan infighting, at times turning the hearings into a sustained shouting match, with Thompson often a leading participant.

Thompson also had problems within his party. His wish to broaden the scope of the investigation beyond possible presidential wrongdoing put him in early opposition to Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). The two rarely speak.

Later, he again crossed Lott and most of his Senate Republican colleagues by holding hearings in support of campaign finance reform as legislation opposed by the GOP was moving to the floor.

And during the hearings, Kristol said, Thompson "didn't succeed in pleasing the rabid anti-Clintonites" because he couldn't make any serious sins stick to the White House. Instead, he added, the whole system looked sleazy.

This was also the message that pollsters heard. "People had little moral outrage, because it's hard to drop below their expectations," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "It was a dog-bites-man story."

Even without public outrage, however, Thompson "got a lot of television exposure out of the hearings, and a lot of coverage on the talk shows," said former senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), co-chairman of the Iran-contra investigation in the 1980s. "He is far better known at this point."

Yet a national reputation does not necessarily translate into a candidacy: "What plays good on the Sunday shows plays badly with the Republican Party and his base," said one conservative source who declined to be identified. Before a presidential candidate can please the country, the source added, he has to please the party.

Kristol said the hearings gave Thompson nothing that "six months from now would be called `Fred Thompson's issue.' " As a result, he will have trouble "trumping" other presidential hopefuls, especially former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander. "You can't have two candidates from the same state," Kristol said.

In the end, said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, Thompson ended up pretty much where he was before the investigation began. "If this was supposed to be a three-stage booster rocket, he got a small single-engine boost – hardly enough to get into the galaxy," Hart said. "He's probably a little better known than he was, but he still falls far below the Elizabeth Doles, Dan Quayles and Steve Forbeses."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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