Cover Story

Blah & order

Campaign 2008 | Fred Thompson has the look, support, and voting record of a great candidate-but does he have the sparkle?

Issue: "He's in," Sept. 22, 2007

NEW HAMPSHIRE-When Fred Thompson stepped off his campaign bus at the Seacoast Republican Women Chili Fest in Stratham, N.H., Sept. 8, the latest addition to the GOP presidential field looked every bit the part. Standing 6 feet 5 with broad shoulders and a gruff disposition, the actor and former Tennessee senator exudes the kind of credibility and presence that voters and Hollywood directors crave.

Thompson made his way through a rain-soaked crowd, signing autographs and snapping photos before ascending the event's stage alongside a massive country farmhouse. "If there's any justice, in the paper tomorrow it's going to say Thompson's working up a storm," he told the umbrella-covered horde of supporters, many of whom had witnessed high winds take down tree limbs and a tent earlier in the day.

But Thompson's first New Hampshire stump speech generated more yawns than thunderclaps. Less than a week removed from his smooth announcement of candidacy on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Thompson blandly endorsed general conservative principles, avoided specific policy objectives, and drew few cheers from the largely sympathetic audience of several hundred people.

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The performance recalled previous lackluster public addresses from Thompson, who so far has rarely infused his campaign with the no-nonsense moxie and sharp wit of his scripted deliveries as New York D.A. Arthur Branch on television's Law & Order. That apparent inability to energize crowds raises questions about whether Thompson can overcome his late start in the run-up to January's critical primaries-and whether comparisons to a past actor turned GOP presidential candidate are truly justified.

The superficial parallels between Thompson and deceased president Ronald Reagan are undeniable-actors, conservatives, regular-guy appeal. But the substance of the comparison hinges on Thompson's perceived ability to untangle complex issues with clear and memorable straight talk. During the senator's two-day romp through New Hampshire early this month, he showed only occasional flashes of such Reagan-esque communication. But the longtime lawyer and lobbyist connected with enough voters and local GOP activists to prove that he doesn't need to be Reagan to be formidable.

Asked about the comparison, Thompson responded with a style all his own: "There will never be another Ronald Reagan, and I don't see one in the mirror when I shave every morning."

Bill Cahill, a local advisor to the campaign, said that New Hampshire voters will appreciate Thompson's "thoughtful" approach to speech-making: "It's deeply held convictions delivered in a serious tone." Cahill added that most New Hampshire Republicans have yet to pick a horse, leaving the GOP race wide open.

But Fergus Cullen, the state's Republican Party chairman, told reporters at the chili fest that Thompson could have an uphill climb in a state where every talented political employee "worth hiring and some who aren't are already on somebody's payroll." Cullen said playing catch-up would require much more of the grassroots retail politics inherent in chili-feed campaign stops.

The latest polls show Thompson tied with John McCain for third in New Hampshire, well behind both Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. National polls place Thompson second behind only Giuliani, with strong leads over Romney and McCain.

Thompson stepped down from the farmhouse stage and moved slowly through the mob of fans and media members to a table lined with chili-filled crock pots. "No, no vegetarian," he said, declining a meatless concoction in favor of the con carne variety.

Local television reporters swarmed the senator before he had time to sample the stew. With his chili going cold in a Styrofoam bowl behind him, Thompson insisted that his late entry into the race would not prevent voters from warming to him. "I can't let other people set my agenda for me," he said. "The pre-game is over. Let the games begin."

The following morning, Thompson sat in the popular Manchester breakfast joint Chez Vachon and sipped coffee alongside the mayor of New Hampshire's largest city. Seven-year-old Dominique Pomerleau wriggled through a surrounding throng of reporters to ask the central question of the 2008 presidential election: "What are you going to be doing about the war?"

Thompson repeated the question before launching into a vague answer short on details and long on platitudes: "The main thing is to keep America strong and to let people around the world know that America is strong and united in whatever we do, because we don't want you or your brothers or sisters to have to go back down there later on."

Thompson has been only slightly more specific in other settings, arguing for the need to pacify Iraqi militants so the country can exist in peace. He continues to defend the initial invasion of Iraq for reasons such as the atrocities of Saddam Hussein and his sons, the enforcement of UN sanctions, and the likelihood that Hussein would have developed and employed weapons of mass destruction.


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