According to Richard Land, two words sum up Fred Thompson's burgeoning appeal to Republican voters: "red meat." That's what Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, says Thompson offers Republicans hungry for a conservative presidential candidate.
Just how hungry are GOP voters? Thompson's polling numbers suggest they are famished. When the former Tennessee senator mentioned on a news talk show in February that he might consider running for president, his poll numbers immediately hit double digits. He surpassed Republican Mitt Romney, who had been running for months and had raised millions.
In early July, though Thompson still hadn't announced his candidacy, the towering actor with a Southern drawl edged into second place among Republicans. He trailed Rudy Giuliani by less than 8 percentage points.
Land told WORLD those are clear signs conservative voters want an alternative to the current Republican field. Other signs: Former front-runner Sen. John McCain continues to lose steam, and Romney struggles to generate it. Meanwhile, Giuliani grapples with how to win over conservatives who oppose his support of legalized abortion and civil unions for homosexual couples.
The lead that Giuliani has held for months among Republicans, Land says, comes down to electability: Voters see him as the man who could beat Democratic contender Hillary Clinton. Pro-life evangelicals have told Land they will vote for Giuliani "if it means stopping Hillary Clinton," he said, "and they've fussed at me for saying I wouldn't."
Land predicts the fussing will stop once the pro-life Thompson enters the race. He thinks evangelicals will flock to the Tennessee politician: "I think the Giuliani express will slow, stall, and go in reverse."
But even as Thompson stirred expectations that he would announce a presidential bid this month, he served up more appetizers than red meat, and left some supporters hankering for more substance from a politician heavy on style.
During a July visit to Columbia, S.C., Thompson charmed a crowd of supporters with the folksy, straight-shooting demeanor that has become his trademark. The audience applauded a speech that included lines like: "The dogs ain't eatin' the dog food when they put that one out there."
Supporters at the event said they liked Thompson's style and spirit, and the fact that he doesn't embrace political correctness. But Margaret Tilbert, who drove more than 200 miles from her home in Fayetteville, Ga., for the event, said Thompson's speech left her with questions: "He's a good speaker and said things I think that essentially most Americans agree with, but I really don't know that much about him or what he'd do."
Exactly what Thompson would do as president isn't yet clear. The potential candidate has focused on principles, not policy in his public appearances. He's spoken in favor of fostering smaller government, bolstering national security, and securing the border, but hasn't yet revealed specific plans for accomplishing those goals.
One issue Thompson seems sure to emphasize is his pro-life credentials. In a video address to the National Right to Life convention in Kansas City, Mo., last month, Thompson pointed out that he maintained a consistent pro-life voting record in the Senate. He added: "I'm for adult stem-cell research, not stem-cell research where embryos of unborn children are destroyed."
But Thompson faces new questions about his pro-life record: The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month that Thompson worked as a lobbyist in 1991 for a pro-abortion group. Officials from the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association (NFPRHA) say they hired Thompson as part of the organization's effort to overturn a ban on federal funding for clinics that conduct abortion counseling.
Mark Corallo, a Thompson spokesman, flatly denied the claim, according to the Times: "Fred Thompson did not lobby for this group, period." The newspaper posted on its website a copy of minutes from a 1991 NFPRHA board meeting that stated the group hired Thompson.
When reporters asked Thompson about the allegations the day after they surfaced, he replied with another folksy but vague saying: "I'd just say the flies get bigger in the summertime. I guess the flies are buzzing."