He has played both a real president (Ulysses S. Grant) and a fictional one on TV, and now, at last, former actor/senator/lobbyist Fred Thompson is ready to audition for the real deal, as he unveils his presidential campaign via webcast on Thursday.
The 6-foot, 6-inch Tennesseean enters the race late and with sky-high expectations. National polls of Republican voters typically put Mr. Thompson in second place, behind former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
But polls also show "none of the above" scoring well or even at times in the lead – a sign, say Thompson backers, that GOP voters are unhappy with their choices. That's good news for Thompson, who was drafted to run after another former Tennessee senator, Bill Frist, opted out of the race. Now that Thompson is a full-fledged candidate, his supporters say, voters once hesitant about buying into a quasi-candidate can say he's their man.
In a way, Thompson has been running for months. He's been building his campaign staff, giving speeches, and raising money. But by keeping himself in "testing the waters" mode, not even filing papers to establish a exploratory committee, he has avoided some of the scrutiny that the fully declared candidates have faced.
He has not taken part in any of the Republican debates – and will miss the next one, on Wednesday night, preferring instead to appear on "The Tonight Show" – and has not competed as a coequal with the other GOP candidates in the fundraising race otherwise known as the "money primary."
Still, his long-developing sort-of campaign has kept political reporters busy, given the turmoil and regular turnovers among top campaign staff, mixed reviews for his speeches, and fundraising that had not met his team's stated expectations. Now, Thompson says, he's ready to go. But he has, in effect, skipped spring training and is going right into the regular season. With the entire political world watching intently, there is little margin for error.
"There's really no clear Republican front-runner and he continues to do reasonably well in the polls, so he has a shot," says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "But at the end of the day, what really matters is, does he come out with a message that resonates with Republicans?"
During the spring, the Thompson team put out signals that the campaign would launch around July 4. Then he delayed, sparking talk that Thompson really did not have the fire in the belly for a grueling presidential run. After all, he is remarried, has two young children, and by all appearances was enjoying his post-Senate life playing District Attorney Arthur Branch on TV's "Law & Order."
When Thompson does finally make his debut as a candidate, the No. 1 question will be: Are his message and persona compelling enough to change the dynamic of the race? Van Hilleary, a former member of Congress from Tennessee who has been raising money for Thompson, sees a Reaganesque ability to communicate and connect with people that will propel him.
"I think it's unfair in many ways to compare anyone else with Ronald Reagan, because he's an icon," says Mr. Hilleary. "But [Thompson] does have an ability to communicate, and in that sense, it's similar to Ronald Reagan."
Republicans have long been yearning for the next Reagan – a sunny conservative whose platform was small government, fiscal restraint, and family values – and had found the existing field wanting. While Mr. Giuliani plays well with his 9/11 tough-guy image and Mr. Romney has won over voters (particularly in the early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Michigan) with his executive and business experience, both have been found lacking on social issues.
Rep. Zach Wamp (R) of Tennessee might be Thompson's biggest cheerleader. In an interview, he describes running into former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker – one of Thompson's original Washington patrons – right after former Senator Frist announced he would not run for president, and hatching the idea of a draft-Thompson effort.
"I said, 'He's a natural – call it gravitas,'" says Mr. Wamp. Senator Baker suggested that Wamp contact Thompson, and when he did, Thompson was caught off guard, described his happy life, and thanked him for the compliment, says Wamp. But the seed was planted and, within months, Thompson was commanding an audience of enthusiastic members of Congress urging him to jump in.
On Thursday, Thompson will do just that. If the former senator can hit the ground running, with a crisp message and positive press reviews, all the talk about having waited too long will dissipate.
But some facts related to timing are immutable. If Thompson had jumped in soon after he first floated the idea on a Sunday talk show in March, he could have turned the Romney campaign into "political roadkill," writes nonpartisan political observer Stu Rothenberg. Instead, by waiting until September, Thompson allowed Romney to mount a highly organized campaign in the early nominating states with major TV advertising, win the Iowa straw poll, and start the autumn push toward the primaries as a top-tier candidate.