Candidate who is not there upstages Republican debate

Times Staff Writers

Fred Thompson launched his presidential bid Wednesday night on a TV talk show in Burbank as eight candidates for the Republican presidential nomination parsed their differences over immigration, Iraq and other issues -- while slinging a few barbs at their newest rival.

“Maybe we’re up past his bedtime,” Sen. John McCain of Arizona quipped of the absentee candidate during the New Hampshire debate.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee took a folksy dig, comparing Thompson to country singer George Jones, “who was often called ‘no-show George’ for not showing up at his concerts.”


“Maybe,” Huckabee said, “Sen. Thompson will be known as the no-show for the presidential debates.”

The subject of the mostly good-natured needling ended months of deliberations with a simple statement, delivered just about an hour earlier at a taping of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

“I’m running for president of the United States,” Thompson said, to loud cheers.

The former Tennessee senator, an actor known to millions as a district attorney on NBC’s “Law & Order,” set out quickly to capture the support of conservatives who have been wary of the party’s top White House contenders.

Thompson avoided mentioning leading opponents Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts by name, but took gentle swipes at them nonetheless for the liberal and moderate stands they once took in their home states.

“In 1994, when I first ran, I advocated the same common-sense conservative positions that I hold today,” Thompson said in a video posted on his website less than two hours after the debate ended.

For months, polls have found Republicans less pleased than Democrats with their candidate lineup. Social conservatives have been especially uneasy with the candidates’ mixed records on abortion, guns and immigration.


“The opening is there to be the consensus conservative,” said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, who is not advising a candidate in the primaries. “The question, is can [Thompson] step into that -- can he make that a reality?”

Thompson faces other questions. In the 1990s, he was a paid lobbyist for a family-planning group that was seeking to ease restrictions on abortion counseling. He also has written on candidate questionnaires that abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy and, in general, should not be criminalized, though as a senator from 1994 to 2003, he voted along antiabortion lines.

In his Senate campaigns, Thompson -- a lobbyist, on and off, since the 1970s -- has cast himself as a political outsider. He did so again Wednesday.

Thompson, however, provided few specifics. He said the “specter of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of our worst enemies continues to grow,” but offered little sense of how he would deal with the matter. He called the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fronts in a larger struggle against “radical Islamic terrorism,” saying America “must do everything in our power to achieve success.”

Earlier, appearing before a friendly audience on “The Tonight Show,” Thompson downplayed his absence from the New Hampshire stage. “We’ll have an opportunity to debate a lot,” he said under gentle questioning from Leno. “We’ll do our fair share.”

With no disrespect to New Hampshire, Thompson quipped, it is “a lot more difficult to get on ‘The Tonight Show’ than appear in a presidential debate.” The crowd roared its affirmation.


But Thompson’s absence from the debate miffed some in the state that will probably host the first presidential primary. Fergus Cullen, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, expressed disappointment that Thompson was “trading jokes” with Leno while his opponents debated the issues. “I just think [he’s] sending the wrong message to New Hampshire voters,” Cullen said.

Some of the candidates chimed in, albeit indirectly. “This is a nomination you have to earn,” said Giuliani, former mayor of New York. “Nobody’s going to give it to you. Nobody’s going to grant it to you.”

Thompson’s name came up again later in the debate, broadcast by Fox News, when Giuliani was asked about a statement from the ex-senator that he had never felt safe in New York City because of its gun controls. “Well, I would say to him the FBI would disagree with that,” Giuliani said. “New York City was, during the years I was mayor, the safest large city in America.” Then, as Romney looked on, Giuliani pointedly compared the city’s crime rate with Boston’s, where “there was a 59% greater chance you’d be the victim of a crime.”

The debate, the fifth among Republican hopefuls, proved one of the liveliest of the GOP campaign, with uncomfortable moments for many of the candidates.

Romney accused Giuliani of being lax on illegal immigration, which he seemed to condone as mayor. “I think saying, as he did, if you happen to be an undocumented alien, we want you in New York, we’ll protect you in New York -- I think that contributed to 3 million illegals in this country becoming 12 million illegals coming into this country,” Romney said.

Giuliani accused the federal government of shirking its duties and said as mayor he pursued policies that encouraged people -- even illegal immigrants -- to report crimes and care for the health of their children. “The reality is, my programs and policies led to a city that was the safest large city in the country, so they must have been sensible policies,” Giuliani said.


Romney, in turn, was thrown on the defensive when questioner Chris Wallace said that as Massachusetts governor, Romney “didn’t even catch the illegals who were mowing your front lawn.” As the audience laughed, Romney replied: “People don’t go to their contractors. . . and inspect [the] ID cards of their employees.”

Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who has made immigration the centerpiece of his campaign, suggested others were acting out of sheer calculation. “It happens to be one of the most serious domestic problems that we face in America,” he said. “How many months did my colleagues up here stay silent or were on the other side of it?”

The session, which ran past its scheduled 90 minutes, found the candidates reprising familiar roles: McCain versus most of the rest of the field in opposing torture as a military device; Rep. Ron Paul of Texas versus the rest of the field in calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

The war, which did not enter the discussion until almost the midway point, prompted one of the most spirited exchanges.

Huckabee, a supporter of President Bush’s troop buildup, said the country must not leave U.S. forces “with anything less than the honor that they deserve.”

Paul, a fierce critic of the war, said neoconservatives had “hijacked” U.S. foreign policy.


“We’ve dug a hole for ourselves, and we dug a hole for our party,” Paul said. “We’re losing elections, and we’re going down next year if we don’t change it.”

“Even if we lose elections,” Huckabee said, to loud cheers, “we should not lose our honor, and that is more important to the Republican Party.”

Citing thousands of lost lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Paul retorted: “What do we have to pay to save face? That’s all we’re doing is saving face. It’s time we came home.”

At another point, Paul wheeled on Wallace when he asked whether the United States should take its marching orders from Al Qaeda. “No!” Paul retorted, stabbing the air with his pen. “We should take our marching orders from our Constitution!”

Asked about Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, fellow Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas said he was right to announce his resignation after pleading guilty to misconduct in an airport men’s room, and should not reconsider. “He’s already pulled that trigger. . . and I think he needs to stick with that,” Brownback said.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) agreed. “I think he ought to stick with. . . the commitment that he made,” Hunter said.