Thompson makes move to join race

Times Staff Writer

Fred D. Thompson, the actor and former Tennessee senator, is about to take a big step toward a formal presidential campaign, a move that will shake up the already unsettled Republican field and throw a wild card into the competition for the GOP’s conservative core.

Thompson this week asked supporters to begin collecting campaign donations June 4, after he files papers with the Federal Election Commission to establish a political committee to “test the waters” for a White House bid.

The move is the clearest signal to date that Thompson, best known for playing a gruff district attorney on NBC television’s “Law & Order,” is shelving his reluctance to join the race. Friends and conservatives have urged him to run to fill a perceived void on the right flank of the Republican candidate field.

After weighing a bid for months, Thompson announced in a Tuesday conference call with about 75 potential donors that he was about to establish his formal fundraising committee, Friends of Fred Thompson. Donors listening in on the call, dubbed the “first day founders,” were encouraged to raise about $50,000 each.


Thompson has been keeping a high profile in conservative circles and preparing behind the scenes to start a campaign. He has gathered a cadre of senior advisors that includes Ken Rietz, a former political director of the Republican National Committee, and Michael Toner, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

On Saturday, Thompson will speak at the Commonwealth Gala, a key event held by the Virginia Republican Party. He addressed a conservative group in Orange County this month, but some commentators panned his speech as lackluster.

Thompson drew attention this month when he got crosswise with a prominent nemesis of conservatives, Michael Moore, over the liberal filmmaker’s recent trip to Cuba. After Moore scolded Thompson for his love of Cuban cigars and challenged him to a debate on healthcare, Thompson replied in a video where he brandished a cigar and suggested that Moore check into a mental hospital.

The pressure for Thompson to run for president has been fueled, in part, by conservative Republicans who see the existing field of candidates as unreliable on key issues.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani faces criticism for supporting abortion rights, gun control and gay rights. Sen. John McCain of Arizona is viewed with suspicion because he strayed from conservative orthodoxy on campaign finance reform, tax cuts and global warming. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is now a solid opponent of abortion and gay rights, but has had to explain why he has changed position on those and other key issues over the years.

“We have a lot of good candidates out there, but you see the polls are all over the board right now, and the base is looking for somebody,” said former Sen. Mack Mattingly of Georgia, a Thompson booster. “Fred fits the conservative mold that can appeal to the Republican base, conservative Democrats and independents around the country.”

Which of the established candidates would lose most from a Thompson candidacy is unclear. Thompson may complicate Romney’s effort to get a firm grip on the party’s conservative base. However, some polls suggest that Giuliani would have the most to lose.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Giuliani leading the field with 32% without Thompson in the race; he had 28% if the actor ran.


McCain had 22% in the poll without Thompson, and 21% with him as a candidate. Romney took 12% without Thompson in the field, and 11% with Thompson running.

Thompson also may cut into the political space available to second-tier candidates, or to a potential candidate like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has said he may enter the race this fall if no other candidate is offering a vibrant agenda of conservative ideas.

Trained as a lawyer, Thompson came to national attention in the 1970s when he served as chief Republican counsel to the Senate committee that investigated the Watergate scandal. His acting career began in 1985, when he was asked to play himself in a film about a corruption case he helped expose.

Thompson was elected to represent Tennessee in the Senate in 1994. He racked up a solidly conservative voting record on issues such as abortion and gun rights, but made some departures from party orthodoxy by supporting campaign finance reform and opposing limits on lawsuits. He decided not to run for reelection in 2002, and was cast on “Law & Order” before he left the Senate.


One McCain donor who is now inclined to support Thompson said that the former senator could cast a shadow over the entire field -- at least initially -- because of his fame and stage presence.

“In the beginning it will have a significant impact,” said the Republican, who asked not to be named because of his mixed loyalties. “It will take a certain amount of oxygen away from the others.”

But it remains to be seen if Thompson’s celebrity can be transformed into a durable campaign. He begins at a significant fundraising disadvantage, and his campaign message has yet to crystallize.

“At this point, his popularity is more a tribute to the three guys out front than it is to him,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, who is affiliated with no presidential candidate.


“If he wants to convert his opportunity into a real candidacy, he’s going to have to be able to articulate some sort of vision that can get people excited,” Keene said.