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New Kids on the Hill: Profiles of 3 Freshmen Likely to Succeed : Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.)

He crisscrossed Tennessee in a red pickup, wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans and plaid shirts. At a rally of beleaguered tobacco farmers, he showed up with a wad of chewing tobacco in one cheek and a cigar protruding from a shirt pocket.

When it comes to role-playing, Fred Dalton Thompson will have few equals in the 104th Congress. But don’t be misled by his well-honed thespian skills. The Nashville lawyer/movie actor is as comfortable in the corridors of power as he is in front of a camera.

Two decades ago, he was the minority counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee. Television viewers with long memories might recognize him as the aide who sat at the elbow of then-Tennessee Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr.

Today, Thompson is a Tennessee senator himself, winning the seat once held by Vice President Al Gore in a tough race against a contender whom Thompson portrayed as a privileged Washington insider. He was quickly embraced by the Senate’s Republican leadership after being chosen to deliver the GOP rebuttal to President Clinton’s first post-midterm election address to the nation last month.

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Thompson took full advantage of the brief starring role. Perched on the edge of a desk, he smoothly portrayed Clinton’s proposed tax cut as a belated effort to follow the lead of Republicans. He played to voters’ dislike of Washington insiders by promising change from “those of us who just came to town.”

Thompson spoke for barely four minutes--less than half the time used by Clinton. But he “showed himself to be a first-class communicator . . . (who) came across as more dynamic and plain-speaking than Clinton,” wrote Washington Post television critic Tom Shales.

His performance did not go unnoticed. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) opined that Thompson would make an excellent spokesman for Republicans, and suggested that voters would be seeing a lot of him in the years to come.

The 52-year-old Thompson won his latest role in part by exploiting his “just-folks” background, which contrasted sharply with that of his opponent, Rep. Jim Cooper, a Rhodes scholar and Harvard Law School graduate. Thompson once worked nights in a bicycle factory. His father was a used car salesman.

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“Jim Cooper’s problem is he’s never seen the inside of a pickup truck,” Thompson said during the campaign.

Thompson the actor has appeared in numerous movies, including “In the Line of Fire” and “The Hunt for Red October.”

Still, it remains to be seen whether he can hold his own in the less forgiving arena that is the floor of the Senate. During a post-address appearance on ABC-TV’s “Nightline,” Thompson seemed far less in command during a debate with Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich.


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