By Michael D. ShearWashington Post Staff WriterFriday, August 31, 2007
Actor and former senator Fred D. Thompson confirmed yesterday that he is running for president, ending a political flirtation he has been conducting since March and thrusting himself into the thick of the battle for the Republican nomination.
In a conference call with elected officials and party leaders backing his bid, Thompson campaign manager Bill Lacy said Thompson has finished "testing the waters" and will file papers making his candidacy official next Thursday. Thompson will announce his decision on that day in a webcast, with the campaign encouraging supporters nationwide to attend house parties on that day as the former lawmaker from Tennessee begins a trek through the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who launched an effort to draft Thompson into the race earlier this year, predicted that Thompson will quickly become the candidate to beat.
"Fred has been working out with a personal trainer. There's a saying in the South that a lean dog hunts best," Wamp said after the conference call, one of several the campaign conducted yesterday. "He is a lean candidate, on his toes. Jeri and the kids have given him a new adrenaline in life. He has a presence that the other candidates do not have."
In an e-mail sent out yesterday afternoon, Thompson said the campaign is "an opportunity to change politics in Washington and across the country, and take on these challenges the way every generation of Americans has faced the challenges of their time -- with unity, hard work and a belief that we will come out on the winning side."
According to polls, Thompson's entry sets up a three-way battle for the mantle of GOP front-runner, with former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as his main rivals.
"Romney's trying to consolidate his position on the right. Giuliani's trying to solidify his position [as] national front-runner," said Mike Murphy, a GOP consultant who advised Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his 2000 presidential bid and has also worked with Romney. "The new factor will be: Can Fred Thompson launch a campaign successfully?"
That remains an open question, rival campaigns said.
Thompson's slow rollout of his candidacy has been plagued by staff shakeups, slower-than-anticipated fundraising and unexplained delays in the announcement of his bid. And his work as a lobbyist and lawyer has already presented political vulnerabilities, including controversial clients and a stint working on behalf of an abortion rights group.
Critics of Thompson have also questioned the wisdom of jumping in so late. But Thompson aides said exit polls from past campaigns overwhelmingly suggest that voters make up their minds in the last weeks before an election.
Even with those lingering issues, Thompson has fared well in national and some state polling, establishing himself in second place nationally and as having strong support in some crucial primary states. Aides told participants in the calls yesterday that they have raised $6 million so far, according to Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who initially backed Romney but was an early addition to the Thompson camp.
Added Murphy: "What you really have got to do is to take this great, mythic Fred Thompson that everyone seems to be interested in and somehow campaign on a day-to-day basis."
That effort will begin on Wednesday. Even as his rivals are participating in a debate in New Hampshire to be telecast on Fox News that night, the "Law & Order" star is scheduled to be in Burbank, Calif., taping an appearance on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," according to campaign aides.
A day later, his campaign will unveil a slickly produced online video in which Thompson will lay out his reasons for wanting to be president. He will then hit the campaign trail, on which advisers think the communication skills honed by his acting career will be a potent weapon.
"The first part of this effort -- we need to let people know who Fred is and what he stands for," said one of his top advisers, who spoke frankly about Thompson's plans on the condition of anonymity. "His challenges are twofold: to let people know who he is [and to] continue to raise money to fuel the campaign."
Advisers said Thompson is likely to continue to address the themes he has been discussing in limited appearances: a sharper focus on national security, fiscal discipline, and a desire to refocus on core Republican principles -- immigration reform, limited government and federalism.
In a speech to a Republican group in Indianapolis last week, he weaved folksy rhetoric into a sharp critique of the nation's direction.
"I do not think we have come together as a nation and come to terms with the length and duration and expense and commitment that it's going to take to meet the threat that we have in Islamic terrorism and radicalism," he told the audience at the Midwest Leadership Conference.
On economic policy, he warned that "we are doing steady damage to our economy, and if we don't do things better, it's going to result in economic disaster to future generations and we are going to leave this place weaker for future generations."
His approach to the race, aides said, will probably borrow from his successful Senate campaigns, in which he guided a red pickup truck across Tennessee to underscore an image of down-home charm. But aides have concluded that running for president requires a more polished approach. Campaign advisers acknowledge that they are still working to find the right balance, taking to heart, for example, that Thompson was recently mocked for wearing Gucci loafers at the Iowa State Fair.
"My sense is, if we can make it through the first 30 days, we'll win," said one Thompson adviser.
Thompson's long run-up to the campaign has given his rivals plenty of time to strategize on countering his star power.
Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman, said his candidate plans to ignore Thompson as much as possible, focusing instead on the need to lift Romney's name identification around the country.
"We deal with it by sticking to our plan," Madden said. "The question is: How does Governor Romney gain more support with Republican primary voters? The answer is talking about his ideas and where he stands."
Though Thompson has already lobbed some thinly veiled criticism at Giuliani on conservative blogs, advisers to the former New York mayor think Thompson will probably seek out a confrontation with Romney as both men try to appeal to conservatives who are uncertain about Giuliani because of his positions on gun rights, abortion and immigration.
"There is a competition between others to be the conservative who takes them on," said one Republican consultant. "That competition is to be the guy who can then have the fight with Giuliani."
Another GOP consultant said Thompson will have trouble making that case.
"He's got this sheen as a conservative savior," said the consultant, who spoke about Thompson on the condition of anonymity. "It's very clear his record is exactly the opposite. . . . He's a centrist who voted for campaign finance reform, known as someone who was not a reliable conservative vote, and with a conflicting record as a Washington insider-lobbyist."
One Romney strategist predicted that the challenge for all three will be to become the most "complete" Republican candidate: one who is right on national security, social issues and electability.
"Do we want to elect somebody who is only two-thirds Republican," the strategist asked, "or do we want to represent all of the important platforms of the Republican Party?"