The animation of Fred Thompson

Times Staff Writer

. -- Campaigning in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Republican presidential hopeful Fred Thompson raised his voice and shook his fists as he described his vision of an America true to conservative values.

The display of vigor last week was timely: Two months into his bid for the nomination, the former Tennessee senator is fighting to shake the image of a laid-back -- even lazy -- candidate who lacks the fervor of his rivals.

Thompson not only has adopted a forceful speaking style, he has taken a more aggressive approach toward other Republican candidates.

The push to put questions about vitality to rest is part of a larger effort to rebound from a spate of campaign stumbles, most recently his flights on the jet of a fundraiser who turned out to have a criminal record for selling drugs.


Once seen as a potential consensus candidate for social conservatives, Thompson is widely thought to have fallen short of expectations. Since the Sept. 5 launch of his campaign, his poll ratings have slid steadily -- most sharply in New Hampshire, the first state to hold a primary. Conservative luminaries, including evangelical leader James C. Dobson and columnist George F. Will, have given scathing appraisals of his candidacy.

Thompson advisors had hoped the avuncular Southern manner that drove his success as a Hollywood actor would prove a key asset, as it still may. But critics and late-night comics have portrayed Thompson not as wise and seasoned but as lackadaisical and unprepared.

“The rap against Sen. Thompson is that he didn’t have the fire in the belly to be president,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist who has not aligned himself with a candidate. “Less-than-energetic performances on the stump . . . have given credence to that criticism.”

On Tuesday, Thompson, 65, confronted the low-energy concern directly in Fort Mills, S.C., where Muzak has its headquarters. Speaking to supporters crammed into Beef O’Brady’s sports bar and restaurant, he suggested that the nation needs a leader with sound judgment, not raw passion.

“Ultimately,” he said, “the American people have to ask themselves: Do they want someone with their finger on the nuclear button who has fire in his belly?” He paused for effect. “Or her belly?” The crowd burst into laughter.

Joking aside, Thompson is trying to define himself as the purest conservative in the race. In Rochester, N.H., he toured a gun factory, a reminder that GOP campaign rivals Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani have each backed gun-control measures, even if they now champion the 2nd Amendment affirmation of the right to bear arms.

“Do you test the accuracy manually or by machine?” Thompson, in safety goggles, asked a manager as they inspected triggers and rifle barrels.

Thompson calls terrorism his No. 1 priority. On a visit to Spartanburg, S.C., he left open the possibility of authorizing waterboarding, which simulates drowning, in interrogations. “It sounds awful to me,” he said. “But I assure you that if innocent lives are at stake, and there’s a ticking time bomb, and we have a terrorist, and our intelligence is good enough for us to be certain that he knows where that ticking time bomb is, we’re going to find out where it is.”

He supports the Iraq war but rarely brings it up.

Thompson has toughened his rhetoric on illegal immigration, denouncing “open borders” at every campaign stop. It is the main focus of his attacks on GOP rivals Giuliani and Romney.

Criticizing the former New York mayor for barring local inquiries on immigrants’ legal status, Thompson said: “It goes against national security, and yet that’s what Mayor Giuliani supports.”

“Where was Fred Thompson when he had the chance to tackle illegal immigration and fix a broken system?” asked Giuliani spokeswoman Maria Comella, citing Thompson’s Senate votes against tighter border controls and job verification measures.

Thompson accused Romney of switching stands on legalizing undocumented immigrants, a charge the former Massachusetts governor calls a distortion.

In his TV ads, Thompson portrays himself as a man of “common-sense conservative principles.” He highlights his support for tax cuts and his opposition to abortion.

Abortion opponents have been wary, however -- all the more so since he said on Sunday that he could not run on his party’s 2004 platform calling for a constitutional amendment banning abortion. States should be free to decide the matter, he said.

Thompson is running his ads first in Iowa, where another Republican Southerner, former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, has surpassed him in the polls. The state’s Jan. 3 caucuses open the presidential nomination contests. Romney holds a wide lead in the state. Thompson campaigned there Sunday and was to continue today.

But Thompson is banking most on the Jan. 19 primary in South Carolina, where he is in a tight race with Giuliani and Romney -- his slide in the polls has been less dramatic there than elsewhere.

“South Carolina is the critical state for the Thompson campaign,” said Ayres, the GOP strategist. “If he can’t win there, it’s hard to imagine where he could win.”

At stops last week in Columbia, Spartanburg, Fort Mill and Greenville, Thompson played up his Southern roots as well as his more vigorous new style.

“Mighty good to be back in God’s country,” he told a breakfast crowd at Tommy’s Country Ham House in Greenville.

Thompson’s manner appealed to John Brown, 60, a retired memorial-and-flag salesman who came to hear him speak in Spartanburg amid the thick aroma of deep-fried onion rings and fries at the Beacon Drive-In. “He doesn’t get rattled,” Brown said.

Thompson advisors say the accelerated tempo and accompanying hand gestures in his speeches last week were not a calculated response to such observations, but the natural evolution of a candidate relatively new to the national stage.

“If you’re expecting somebody to leap off the stage and start singing show tunes,” said senior Thompson advisor Rich Galen, “you’re not going to get that.”