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Thompson’s hometown is getting ready for Freddie

Times Staff Writer

lawrenceburg, tenn. -- Ask folks here about the most talked-about potential Republican candidate for president, and the answer comes quick:

“We’re ready for Freddie.”

Truth be told, Lawrenceburg has been ready for months for its favorite son, former Sen. Fred D. Thompson, to announce his candidacy for president. And in this middle Tennessee town near the Alabama line, it’s considered as certain as Wednesday night Bible study that Thompson will launch his run in the public square, a block from the David Crockett Theater.

Rumors -- all unconfirmed -- about the timing of a Thompson announcement spread faster here than news of catfish biting in Shoal Creek. And while the political world has been waiting and waiting for Thompson’s oft-delayed announcement -- once planned for the Fourth of July, and now expected next month -- Lawrenceburg and its 10,911 souls seem more impatient than most.

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“We’re just waitin’ on the waitin’ on,” said Cromer Smotherman, 82, a retired manufacturing executive who is in charge of a new planning committee, known alternately as the Community Readiness Committee and the Getting Ready for Freddie group.

“It’s a bit frustrating,” he said of Thompson’s delay, during an interview over dinner at his retirement community, where he moved after his wife’s death a few years back. “In the meantime, we’re just trying to stay busy.”

These days, Lawrenceburg has the feel of a home whose owners must repeatedly clean up for a party that keeps getting postponed. Preparations have been made and remade.

The old public square has been pressure-cleaned for the first time. A store has opened to sell Thompson-related memorabilia and provide information on Thompson-related sites, and a local clothing store owner, Chunky Moore, has become the semi-official town spokesman on all matters Thompson. Economic development officials are plotting ways to capitalize on the higher profile that a successful Thompson candidacy might afford.

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Earlier this year, the city’s commissioners, citing the strong possibility of worldwide attention, went so far as to change municipal law: They banned citizens from leaving bulk trash curbside.

In the past, residents could dump anything they wanted, and city trucks would pick it up. But city fathers worried that visiting dignitaries and journalists might think less of Lawrenceburg if they saw refuse along the roads. Residents here now have to take bulk trash to a city facility -- and pay about $25 per ton for the privilege.

“All the mattresses and recliners on the side of the road were unsightly anyway. It’s something we had needed to improve,” Mayor Keith Durham said. “The campaign was the catalyst for doing it.”

Even with all these preparations, Thompson -- who has been either second or third in recent GOP popularity polls, even without a formal candidacy -- has yet to commit publicly or privately to a specific date or place for an announcement. A formal invitation by Lawrenceburg and Lawrence County officials has gone unanswered; so have requests for comment by The Times on his hometown’s odds.

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Nevertheless, people here are confident that Thompson, who lives in Washington’s Northern Virginia suburbs, still considers Lawrenceburg home. He graduated from high school here, began practicing law here, and his father and a daughter are buried in a cemetery here.

And those who knew him as an unmotivated high school student named Freddie -- a name he used in legal documents well into his 20s -- say his delay is hardly surprising.

A few yellow dog Democrats who hang around Ledbetter Drug drinking 10-cent coffee may mutter that Thompson is lazy, but most townspeople will tell you their boy is merely laid back -- and cautious. They recall similar uncertainty before Thompson ran for the Senate in 1994. Ultimately, he ran, and he announced his candidacy in Lawrenceburg.

“I want him to get out there, but you know Fred,” said Lloyd Comer, a retired attorney and judge here who has known Thompson for 40 years. “If he ever gets around to announcing, I’ll send him a check.”

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While there is much good humor about Thompson, local officials say their plans to piggyback on his notoriety are serious.

The town needs economic help. Lawrenceburg, the seat of Lawrence County, is geographically isolated, more than 30 miles from Interstate 65 and about 80 miles southwest of Nashville. After years of downsizing, bicycle manufacturer Murray Ohio, which provided many of the town’s jobs, shut down for good in 2005. The companies that remain are mostly small operations that make, among other things, church pews and cheerleader uniforms.

Smotherman, a leader in the Getting Ready for Freddie effort, was Murray Ohio’s first local employee and eventually served as the company’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. Since Murray Ohio closed, the town has focused its economic development efforts on promoting itself as a destination for retirees.

Lawrence County boasts a museum of Southern gospel music, plenty of Crockett sites (the 19th century frontiersman was one of the first city commissioners), and an Amish community north of town that is a strong tourist draw. To attract retirees, Chamber of Commerce brochures emphasize the warm climate, low housing prices (the county average is $80,000) and the absence of a state income tax.

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Thompson’s campaign -- and, God willing, a Freddie presidency -- will give Lawrenceburg a chance to advertise itself more widely, Smotherman said. He admitted to studying the effects on Plains, Ga., when Jimmy Carter rose to the country’s highest office, though there is a crucial difference: While Carter always maintained a residence in Plains, Thompson has not lived in Lawrenceburg since 1969.

Smotherman’s readiness committee began meeting at the end of May. At its most recent session, in early August, two dozen people -- including elected officials, Chamber of Commerce employees, local arts leaders, community group presidents and several people involved in providing services to seniors -- met in a Lawrenceburg senior citizens center.

“I think you’re going to start seeing people coming because of interest in Fred,” Daphene Cope, the chamber’s operations director, told the group. “We’re going to have a different attraction because of him.”

Anne Morrow, a Thompson cousin who is curator of the art museum next to the Crockett Theater, reported on some recent e-mail contacts with Thompson’s office. (There was still no word on an announcement, she said.) The mayor talked about the idea of adding 20-foot-tall signs at the city limits with blown-up photographs of Thompson.

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The director of the local historic district described how state money would pay for flower planters and signs. The attendees also heard a report on a massive countywide cleanup effort that netted 22,000 pounds of litter.

“We want to grow the community,” Smotherman said. “And Freddie can help.”

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joe.mathews@latimes.com

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