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Could an actor again fill GOP leading role?

Times Staff Writers

Conservatives often ridicule Democrats for espousing the “culture of Hollywood.” But in the latest sign of Republican discontent with the field of 2008 presidential hopefuls -- and in a familiar plot twist -- some of those same activists are eyeing an actor as the party’s potential savior.

Fred Thompson, the former GOP senator from Tennessee who once played a White House chief of staff on the big screen and who appears now as a politically savvy prosecutor on TV’s “Law & Order,” is positioning himself to answer the call and, perhaps, follow the script that saw Ronald Reagan jump from Hollywood to the White House.

Thompson is scheduled to visit Capitol Hill in a few weeks, a trip designed to dovetail with efforts by three well-connected Tennessee friends to line up support for drafting him into a GOP campaign that so far has left many core Republican leaders discouraged.

One of those friends, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, has called for a Thompson candidacy in postings on his political action committee’s blog. Meanwhile, Howard Baker, another former Senate majority leader who also served as a White House chief of staff under President Reagan, and Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) have been recruiting congressional endorsements.

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Thompson “is in the process of getting his personal affairs in order so this has a chance of happening,” said Wamp, who spoke at length this week with Thompson.

Wamp said that about 40 House members were interested in meeting with Thompson. Frist told supporters Friday that Thompson was interested in hearing their reactions.

“Now is the time for big ideas ... big, true conservative ideas that rise above the fray,” Frist wrote on his website.

Noting that he spoke with Thompson on Thursday night, Frist said, “Fred is listening. He will carefully consider running over the next several weeks.”

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Plenty of obstacles remain for Thompson -- or any would-be candidate -- given that other presidential aspirants already have secured major endorsements and hired strategists, while investing millions of dollars to build networks in the early-voting primary states.

But the effort coalescing behind Thompson underscores the extent to which leading conservatives are dissatisfied with a GOP race in which former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a moderate on abortion and gay rights, has become the front-runner in polls.

The leading alternatives to Giuliani have not quelled the disenchantment -- top conservatives remain wary of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney suffers from his one-time embrace of moderate views on some social issues.

Romney has disavowed those positions and stressed his commitment to conservative causes. He won a straw poll at a recent conference of conservative activists in Washington -- but even after busing supporters to the event, he came out on top with just 21% of the vote.

“That’s not what I would call a ringing endorsement,” said David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organized the gathering.

“People are looking at the field and saying consumers are not going to buy the product,” Keene said. “At a certain point, you can put a new one on the market and clean up.”

Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who introduced Romney at the conservative conference, said an opening remained for a viable alternative.

“You can write the scenario where any one, or every one, of the [leading GOP contenders] weakens, and a strong candidate can jump in,” he said.

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Norquist, along with some other conservative leaders, is frustrated that popular former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- the president’s brother -- has ruled out a candidacy.

“I’m a big fan of the Jeb Bush scenario, but he’s just decided ‘no, no, no,’ and Bush fatigue may be stronger than I thought it was,” Norquist said.

Another prospective answer to the prayers of some conservatives is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. His recent admission of an extramarital affair while he pressed for impeachment proceedings against President Clinton was seen partly as an effort to inoculate himself from future criticism of his personal life.

But Gingrich has made no direct moves toward organizing supporters or, perhaps most important, raising money.

And many, even within the conservative movement, view him as better-suited to the role of political theorist than practical politician.

As GOP leaders survey both sides of the emerging presidential campaign, many express concern that only Democrats are excited about their options -- energized by what is shaping up as a titanic battle featuring Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

With that in mind, allies of Thompson say the folksy 64-year-old would bring made-for-television star power to a GOP field lacking that quality.

But Thompson is proceeding cautiously, careful to avoid criticizing the current crop of contenders -- he was McCain’s national co-chairman in 2000 -- and tamping down the notion that he appears to be angling for the job.

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“One advantage you have in not, you know, having [the presidency] as lifelong ambition is that if it turns out that your calculation is wrong, it’s not the end of the world,” Thompson said in a recent interview on Fox News.

But Thompson, whose spokesman said he would not comment for this article, is taking steps that serve to accentuate the buzz around a possible candidacy.

During the Fox News interview, he staked out solidly conservative positions on key issues, opposing same-sex marriage, gun control, and the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.

He tried to secure a coveted speaking slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference, earlier this month, where several candidates appeared and where the straw poll that Romney won was conducted.

Unaware that Thompson was mulling a White House bid, organizers told him the docket was full.

Thompson has been periodically filling in for radio commentator Paul Harvey.

And he used a recent essay on the website of National Review magazine to distance himself from the troubles of the Bush White House and to make a case for competence as a campaign theme.

“Whether it’s the Katrina response; the problems at Walter Reed Medical Center; bungled border security; or the IRS and FBI, which can’t get their computer systems working, it seems like we’ve lost our ability to take care of some of the most basic duties of government,” he said.

In another online essay, he strongly criticized Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald for pressing the perjury case that resulted in the conviction of former senior White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby -- a position that is a rallying cry among conservatives.

Thompson first gained national attention as the counsel for Republicans serving on the Senate Watergate committee in 1973 and ’74. Starting in the mid-1980s, he began balancing his legal and political interests with acting jobs -- in one of his more notable roles, he portrayed a rear admiral in “The Hunt for Red October.”

He was elected in 1994 to fill the Senate term that Al Gore gave up for the vice presidency; he easily won reelection in 1996, then decided to step down in 2002. Around the same time, he was cast as Dist. Atty. Arthur Branch on NBC’s “Law and Order.”

Sometimes called “Hollywood Fred,” Thompson’s pitch to social conservatives could be complicated by his personal life. Divorced once, he was known for having an active social life that included a relationship with country music star Lorrie Morgan. He married his second wife, political media consultant Jeri Kehn, in 2002.

Although Thompson probably would offer himself as an outsider, his official residence is no longer in Tennessee, but in the affluent Washington suburb of McLean, Va.

Moreover, some question whether Thompson has the temperament and discipline to raise the money and adhere to the grueling schedule required by a presidential campaign.

“The only rap I know on him is he doesn’t like to work hard,” said influential conservative Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation.

Still, Weyrich said, Thompson could bridge a widening gap between social and economic conservatives.

“I’m not promoting his candidacy, but I’m not objecting to him,” Weyrich said.

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

janet.hook@latimes.com

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fred Dalton Thompson

Born: Aug. 19, 1942, in Sheffield, Ala.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Memphis State University; law degree, Vanderbilt University.

Experience: Practicing attorney, 1967-94; U.S. senator, 1994-2003; actor.

Personal: Married; three children by his first wife, two by his second.

Quote: “I think people are somewhat disillusioned. I think a lot of people are cynical out there. I think they’re looking for something different.”

Source: Times reporting


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