Going 'to the people,' he says he'll run
By Susan Page
STAMFORD, Conn. � Politician-turned-actor Fred Thompson has been coy with audiences as he flirts with a bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
In an interview with USA TODAY, however, the former Tennessee senator not only makes it clear that he plans to run, he describes how he aims to do it. He's planning a campaign that will use blogs, video posts and other Internet innovations to reach voters repelled by politics-as-usual in both parties.
"I can't remember exactly the point that I said, 'I'm going to do this,' " Thompson says, his 6-foot, 6-inch frame sprawled comfortably across a couch in a hotel suite. "But when I did, the thing that occurred to me: 'I'm going to tell people that I am thinking about it and see what kind of reaction I get to it.' "
His late start carries some problems but also "certain advantages," he says. "Nobody has maxed out to me" in contributions, he notes, and using the Internet already "has allowed me to be in the hunt, so to speak, without spending a dime."
Thompson could reshape a GOP contest in which each of the three leaders has significant vulnerabilities and none of the seven second-tier contenders has broken through. Without formally joining the race � he's preparing to do that as early as the first week of July � Thompson already is placing third and better among Republican candidates in some national polls.
Dissatisfaction among one-third of Republicans with the 2008 field has opened the door for the candidate, whose folksy tone, actor's ease before an audience and conservative credentials drew comparisons to Ronald Reagan at the annual Connecticut GOP dinner here. Thompson addressed the dinner last week to a sold-out audience.
"People listen to him and see someone who's very comfortable with who he is and confident about what he believes in," state Republican chairman Chris Healy says. "That's a skill that, obviously, Ronald Reagan took to great heights."
Thompson, who has left a five-season stint playing Manhattan District Attorney Arthur Branch on NBC's Law & Order, says his model will be the untraditional campaign he ran in his first political bid for the Senate in 1994.
After a lackluster start, Thompson swapped his tailored suit for a plaid shirt and jeans and began driving a red Chevy pickup across the state in a bid to fill the final two years of Al Gore's term. Despite his background as a Washington lawyer and lobbyist, Thompson derided Congress as larded with legislators who had lost touch with their constituents and, in some cases, their principles.
He came from behind to swamp his Democratic opponent by 21 percentage points in a year Republicans capitalized on antipathy toward President Clinton to win control of the House and Senate.
"I feel some of the same feelings that I felt in the latter part of that '94 campaign about what is going on in the country today … only greater," says Thompson, citing public cynicism toward the Republican president and the new Democrat-controlled Congress. "You can't drive the truck all the way across the country, but since '94 other opportunities have opened up in terms of ways to communicate."
A candidate could use the Internet "to cut through the clutter and go right to the people," he says.
And the red pickup, now rusting outside his mother's home in Franklin, Tenn.? "You might drive it a few places," he allows.
It's rare: The Republican presidential nomination is as up-for-grabs as the Democratic one.
Even in Connecticut � the backyard of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and a state whose primary Arizona Sen. John McCain carried in 2000 � many Republican activists are still trying to decide whom to support.
"We're looking for someone who can be dynamic, who can bring together the troops," Stephen Bessette, 44, the vice president of a software company and a Stonington selectman, says as he waits for Thompson to begin speaking. "There are still people with their hands in their pockets, waiting for the right candidate."
None of the current contenders seems to have the stuff to win an "uphill battle" in the general election, says John Nazzaro, 49, a lawyer from Stonington and member of the GOP state central committee. He wonders whether Thompson's persona might have a better chance.
Despite what seems to have been a charmed life as a politician and actor, Thompson can project an outsider's demeanor � as much the working-class kid who grew up in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., as the celebrity who now lives in the tony Washington suburb of McLean, Va. He has a Southern drawl, a loping gait, a lined face and a balding pate.
Although he's never spotlighted the social issues that energize much of the Republican base, Thompson consistently voted in the Senate against abortion and in favor of gun rights. Giuliani's support of abortion rights and Romney's conversion to oppose them have raised qualms among some social conservatives toward them.
On Iraq, Thompson voted to authorize the invasion in October 2002 and now opposes setting a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops. Still, his fortunes aren't as inextricably tied to the war as those of McCain, who has been one of the war's leading defenders.
In any case, Thompson argues that Republicans lost control of the House and Senate in November not because of the war but because of out-of-control spending and unrestrained partisanship. What's surprising � and encouraging for Republicans � is that Democrats didn't gain more ground, he says.
"It's been kind of a pox on both your houses," he says. "There's a disconnect out there between the people and Washington. … It seems lately whoever has power, whoever has control makes the same predictable mistakes."
His campaign themes: tighter borders, smaller government and lower taxes.
He says he doesn't underestimate how difficult a campaign will be. Most of the top GOP strategists have signed up with other campaigns. The current contenders have been furiously fundraising with hopes of amassing impressive amounts in the second quarter. Those reports are due in July.
Some skeptics question whether Thompson has the drive for a national campaign. "He didn't have a particularly distinguished Senate career, though that has never been a bar to anybody else being president," says David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union, who isn't supporting any candidate. "The book on him is he's lazy. I don't know whether that's true or not."
Thompson bristles at the suggestion that he's lazy or running on a lark � dismissing those as "shots by concerned future competitors." He acknowledges a campaign involves "working your fanny off" and predicts his late start means he'll need less money than the others.
He made his first appeal to 100 fundraisers in a conference call Tuesday. He hopes to make a splash by amassing an impressive fundraising total of his own as soon as he launches a testing-the-waters committee on Friday.
The Tennessee Republican running for president in 2008 was supposed to be former senator Bill Frist.
Stung by controversies over intervening in the case of a brain-dead Florida woman and changing positions on stem cell research, Frist announced in November he was retiring from politics and returning to medicine.
That weekend, Tennessee Rep. Zach Wamp was meeting with the dean of the state's Republicans, former senator and White House chief of state Howard Baker, as part of an effort to persuade Toyota officials to locate a Highlander SUV assembly plant in Chattanooga.
That campaign failed � Toyota announced in February the plant would go to Tupelo, Miss. � but a presidential draft was launched.
Wamp asked Baker, Thompson's mentor, to call Thompson and urge him to jump into the presidential race. "You've known him a long time," Baker replied, according to Wamp. "Call him yourself."
Thompson had been easily re-elected to the Senate in 1996 and briefly considered a presidential bid before the 2000 race. In 2002, however, devastated when his 38-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Thompson Panici, died of an accidental prescription-drug overdose, he decided not to run for another Senate term.
He signed on for the Law & Order role � he has been a character actor since playing himself as a whistleblower's lawyer in a 1985 movie about a Tennessee political scandal � and went on the speaking circuit. He began blogging and regularly appearing on ABC Radio, sometimes filling in for idiosyncratic commentator Paul Harvey. Divorced for nearly 20 years, he married Jeri Kehn, a Washington lawyer who had been active in Republican politics, in 2002. They have a 4-year-old daughter and a 6-month-old son.
When Wamp first called, Thompson demurred. When none of the GOP candidates seemed to catch fire, he reconsidered. In February, Thompson told Wamp he was "very open-minded to this."
In March, Thompson announced on Fox News Sunday that he was "going to leave the door open" to a bid. Two weeks later, he finished in third place among Republicans in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, beating Romney out of the box and trailing only Giuliani and McCain.
In April, he disclosed that he had been diagnosed in 2004 with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, though he says the slow-growing cancer hasn't caused him any problems, and his doctors tell him he may well live a normal lifespan.
Last week, he won an unofficial straw poll of GOP activists in Georgia, besting by 2-1 the No. 2 finisher � former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who's from Georgia and isn't formally in the race yet, either.
His biggest challenge, Thompson says, will be to avoid getting cautious � that is, to forget the lessons he learned in his 1994 plaid-shirt-and-red-truck campaign.
Consider how he responded two weeks ago when liberal filmmaker Michael Moore challenged him to a debate on health care and called him a hypocrite for favoring embargoed Havana cigars. In the conservative National Review, Thompson had chided Moore's new documentary, Sicko, which unfavorably compares the U.S. health care system with the one in Cuba.
It was 9:30 that morning when Jeri told her husband that Moore's debate challenge had been posted the night before on the gossipy Drudge Report.
" 'Jeri said, 'You know, we could have some fun,' " Thompson recalls. " 'Why don't you do something on the Internet?' So I got to thinking about it and I got to thinking about what I might do. …"
"And Mark Corallo and Ed McFadden had that camera there in 40 minutes," Jeri, who is sitting in on the interview, breaks in. Corallo and McFadden, aides to John Ashcroft when he was U.S. attorney general, have been helping Thompson behind the scenes.
In the video, sitting at the desk in his study, Thompson seems to be studying his calendar, an unlit Cuban Montecristo in his mouth.
"You know, I've been looking at my schedule, Michael, and I don't think I have time for you," Thompson begins. "But I may be the least of your problems. You know, the next time you're down in Cuba visiting your buddy Castro, you might ask him about another documentary filmmaker. His name is Nicolas Guillen. He did something Castro didn't like, and they put him in a mental institution for several years, giving him devastating electroshock treatment.
"A mental institution, Michael," he says. "Might be something you ought to think about."
By 11:30 a.m., two hours after his first chat about the furor, the 38-second video was done. By early afternoon it was posted on Breitbart.tv, a website for news videos launched last month. As of Wednesday, versions of the video on YouTube.com had been viewed more than 83,000 times.
His challenge will be to keep taking risks and trying unconventional tactics, Thompson says.
"I've got to fight to have the guts enough to follow my own instincts," he says. "Everybody is going to make mistakes anyway. Things are going to happen. You're going to have good days and bad. You might as well do it your way."
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