Could Fred Thompson please the right?
Speculation rises over a possible run for president by the former Republican senator from Tennessee.
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.
In his first run for Senate more than a decade ago, the Republican lawyer and actor Fred Thompson charmed Tennessee voters with a good ol' boy persona and a deep Southern drawl. In work shirts and blue jeans, he crisscrossed the state in a red pickup, eating corn bread and fried chicken with ordinary voters and routing his starchy Democratic rival.Skip to next paragraph
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But the setting Friday night for his first speech since a flurry of Washington buzz about a possible Thompson presidential bid was no Tennessee porch front. The ballroom of the Balboa Bay Club & Resort here, where the audience of business executives dined on crab-encrusted sea bass and filet mignon, bordered a palm-fringed swimming pool and a Ferrari dealership. Here in the heart of Orange County, one of the country's wealthiest conservative enclaves, the reviews of Mr. Thompson's public debut as a semi-candidate were decidedly mixed.
Members of the Lincoln Club of Orange County, an influential conservative group that hosted the event, praised Thompson's plain-spoken style, his appeal to Southern voters, and his impeccable ideological credentials on issues like limited government, lower taxes, and border security. But several people said they were worried by his sedate delivery – where was the fire? one man asked – and a lack of specifics in his homespun critiques of Democrats and inside-the-beltway Washington.
"He needs to get more detailed," said Richard Wagner, a real estate developer and president of the Lincoln Club. "We need to find out if he can really become an ideological soulmate."
Since saying in April that he was considering a White House run and appearing on a carefully tailored list of conservative talk shows, Thompson has soared to third place in some polls of Republican voters, behind only former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The prospect of a Thompson candidacy has electrified former colleagues on Capitol Hill. Some 50 House Republicans trooped over to a social club across from the Capitol last month to goad him to run.
Political strategists say his appeal has as much to do with conservative displeasure with the current Republican field as with his celebrity from a string of movie and television roles as a government authority figure. He has played an FBI agent, a White House chief of staff, a CIA director, and a rear admiral, though is best known as New York District Attorney Arthur Branch in the NBC television drama "Law & Order," a hulking prosecutor in chief fond of chastening subordinates with bits of Southern folk wisdom.
"He is every bit as skilled in front of a camera as Ronald Reagan, and we've seen what an enormous political asset that can be," says GOP pollster and strategist Whit Ayres.
But if his address here Friday was any measure, he may face some difficulties in extending his built-in base in the South to business conservatives in other parts of the country.
"It's a split within the Republican party," says Professor John Geer of Vanderbilt University, an expert on presidential campaigns. "He's not going to necessarily be superpopular around classic conservative Californians. His base will be more in the South. The conservative Christian segment of the party will be much more comfortable with Thompson than with [former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt] Romney."
Speaking a day after the declared Republican candidates took part in their first debate at the Reagan Presidential Library, Thompson gave no hint of the timing of any announcement. But people close to him say he will probably decide by next month, after a set of speeches before conservative groups that will serve in part as a test of the appetite for a Thompson presidency.