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.
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.
"He only wants to run if he can become president," said Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican behind the House effort to draft him into the race. "This is not a Bob Dole campaign, where it's someone's turn to be our nominee."
GOP analysts say his celebrity would partly make up for a late entry into the race. But they say he would still need to hustle for cash and a campaign team. "The big question is whether he can catch up in the race for money and organization," says Republican strategist Terry Holt. "McCain, Giuliani, and Romney are miles ahead in those categories."
Thompson grew up the son of a used-car dealer in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., and supported a young family while in college. He was serving as an assistant US attorney in Nashville, when the man who would become his political mentor, Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker Jr., named him chief Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate committee in 1973. At the hearings, Thompson famously asked the question that exposed President Nixon's secret White House taping system.
He had returned to life as a lawyer and lobbyist when he was asked to play himself in the 1985 movie "Marie," about a whistle-blower he defended in a clemency-selling scheme during the corrupt administration of Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton. His acting career was born.
In 1994, he trounced a rival in a special election for the Senate seat that Al Gore had vacated to become vice president. He was easily reelected in 1996. He led hearings into campaign fundraising abuses, and he voted for a campaign-finance reform bill that remains a political liability for him with many conservatives.
One constant in his voting record is a distaste for federal bureaucracy and an impatience with the procedural rigmaroles on Capitol Hill. His belief that most policymaking should be left to the states led to votes against popular bills to toughen drunken-driving laws and ban guns near schools.
He announced that he would not seek a second full term, but changed his mind after 9/11. Then he reversed course again, leaving the Senate for good in 2002 after the death of his adult daughter from an accidental prescription-drug overdose. He remarried the same year, and he and his second wife have two young children.
On Friday night, Thompson took the podium to the theme song from "Law & Order." In a dark suit and tie – no blue jeans, this time – the 6-foot, 6-inch Thompson took aim at federal red tape, said that the lax border security put the country at risk of terrorism, and suggested he would ask older Americans to accept changes in Social Security to keep the system solvent for their children.
He said an early pullout from Iraq would make the Middle East a "haven for terrorism" and embolden nations, like Iran, with nuclear ambitions. He also denounced a tax system in which "5 percent of the people pay over half of the taxes."
Speaking of the "liberals in Washington," he said, "Of course, they're talking about once again targeting the rich. My advice for anybody in the middle class: Don't stand anywhere near the target."
The line drew one of the night's biggest rounds of laughter and applause, and many people left impressed, if still noncommittal.
"He mentioned issues that we all have been looking for the candidates to stand solid on," said Mary Hobbs, a writer and teacher.
Tom Barnett, a power-plant developer who said he was undecided in the Republican primary but leaning toward Mr. Romney, described Thompson as an "immensely likable guy."
"But, unfortunately, at this stage in the race, with so many viable candidates, to elbow them out of the way you have to get people's attention," he said. "I'm not sure I saw that tonight."