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.
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.
Similar justifications for war might well apply to Iran, a possibility the former chairman of the State Department's International Security Advisory Board does not rule out. Thompson views the conflict in Iraq as just one piece in an ongoing war against an ideology that will test American resolve. "We've had war declared on us by a group of people who have no principles, have no compassion, and play by no rules," he said. "Iraq is a part of that problem, but it's part of a much bigger problem."
Thompson has made national security the centerpiece of his campaign. He decries the country's decrease in military spending following the Cold War and is an unapologetic advocate for peace through strength.
Such hawkish commitments serve Thompson well with many members of the armed forces. On this Sunday afternoon at a Manchester sports bar, Desert Storm veteran Andrew Patterson relished the chance to meet one of his political heroes before the start of the New England Patriots game. "I'm a big fan, because he's very pro-military," Patterson explained.
The appeal of Thompson's apparent toughness in the war on terror stretches well beyond military ranks. Self-described Fred-head Steve Smith brought his entire family to Jillian's sports bar for a chance to meet the GOP candidate. Smith considers himself a religious-values voter, but is more concerned with national security for this election cycle than typical hot-button social issues like abortion or gay marriage.
He is not alone: Many socially conservative evangelicals and Catholics view Thompson as the most viable top-tier candidate despite his relative quiet on so-called values issues. Though the issue is not featured in his campaign, Thompson maintains a consistently conservative record on abortion, having received a 100-percent rating from National Right to Life during his eight years in the Senate.
On gay marriage, Thompson supports an amendment to the Constitution that would prohibit states from imposing their laws on other states-a measure that falls short of more sweeping legislation to define marriage as between a man and a woman, but one consistent with Thompson's support of federalism.
Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, predicted that evangelicals would flock to Thompson once he entered the race, abandoning the pro-abortion front-runner Giuliani. Indeed, Thompson has seen a spike in national polls since his announcement, though Giuliani continues to lead.
Thompson does not possess the same kind of evangelical appeal that President George W. Bush established in his two successful bids for the White House. Whereas Bush spoke often of his faith and connected on a personal level with evangelicals, Thompson rarely invokes God-except to reaffirm the Founding Fathers' guiding principle that human rights come from God rather than the state.
Though Thompson does not attend church regularly, he objected earlier this year when Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson suggested he was not a Christian. In fact, Thompson was baptized in the Church of Christ as a teenager and still maintains some allegiance to that association.
Like many Christians, Fred-head Smith is more concerned with Thompson's record on political issues than his theological convictions: "You certainly know where he stands on things, and he's been consistent on acting on those things."
But not everyone at Jillian's was so thrilled to see the Republican politician or the gaggle of media blocking views of big-screen televisions. Sensing unrest with the distraction, Thompson quickly ordered a hamburger with everything on it and a diet Coke before returning to his campaign bus to catch the first half of the Patriots season-opener.
Two hours later, as the Patriots soundly thumped the New York Jets, football fans at P.J. O'Sullivan's across town seemed more agreeable to Thompson's presence. Grinning ear to ear after scoring a hug from the senator, local resident Joanne Blake explained her attraction: "Number one, he's Law & Order, and I love Law & Order. Number two, he says it as it is."
Thompson's television stardom after six seasons with the popular NBC drama is no small piece to his campaign. He consistently mentions his acting career-which includes playing the president in one film-during stump speeches. Such screen time affords Thompson immediate familiarity in the minds of potential voters. People know him as the honest, straight-shooting, authority figure he portrays on TV.
In reality, Thompson's story is less than idyllic. Married at 17 after impregnating his girlfriend Sarah Lindsey, the notorious goof-off finished high school as a husband and father. That sudden shot of responsibility helped awaken Thompson to the realities of adulthood. He worked multiple jobs to support his young family, and in 1967 graduated from Vanderbilt Law School near the top of his class.
Thompson's career quickly soared, as he became a U.S. attorney in his late 20s and played an important role in exposing the Watergate scandal as minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. That success sparked a book deal, speaking engagements, and more high-profile attorney work.
In one case, Thompson represented a fired Tennessee parole board member accusing Gov. Ray Blanton of taking bribes from prison felons. The favorable outcome of the case led to a book and subsequent film in which producers asked Thompson to portray himself. More acting jobs soon followed.
But no amount of professional success could keep Thompson's 25-year marriage from failing. The couple divorced in 1985, their three children fully grown. Thompson married in 2002 Jeri Kehn, with whom he has a 4-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son.
The 65-year-old father speaks often of his late-life blessings and the country they'll grow up in as reasons for his entry into the presidential race. During the final campaign stop of his first New Hampshire trip, Thompson stood on the steps of Nashua City Hall and talked about the importance of defending the conservative principles of "the strongest, freest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world."
He spoke of national security, limited government, and lower taxes, ideas central to the conservative movement. But even this friendly audience rarely erupted in cheers, a recurring theme that pushed Thompson to explain himself: "I may not give you a lot of applause lines as we go along. I think this is a serious time."
BORN: Freddie Dalton Thompson, Aug. 19, 1942, in Sheffield, Ala.; raised in Lawrenceburg, Tenn.
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree from Memphis State University (1964); law degree from Vanderbilt University (1967)
- 1969-1972: Assistant U.S. attorney
- 1973-1974: Minority counsel, Senate Watergate Committee
- 1975-1993: Lobbyist, lawyer
- 1977: Took on a Tennessee Parole Board case that exposed a cash-for-clemency scheme that toppled the governor and became the subject of a book and the film Marie: A True Story, in which Thompson played himself
- 1987-present: Actor, appearing in 18 films, including No Way Out, The Hunt for Red October, Days of Thunder, Die Hard 2, Cape Fear, and In the Line of Fire; and since 2002 starring as New York District Attorney Arthur Branch on the TV series Law & Order
- 1994-2002: U.S. senator from Tennessee; served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs