At Long Last, Fred Takes the Big Plunge

Thompson, running as a true conservative, just might be able to shake up the GOP race.

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Although he underscores his conservative credentials, it turns out he was hired as a lawyer in 1990 for an abortion-rights group, which supporters say was a matter of legal representation, not a reflection of his views. His aides point out that as a senator he had a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life, an antiabortion group. His critics say this is one of many vulnerabilities. Another problem, they say, is he never accomplished very much as a senator and was known for a laid-back view of the work ethic.

Thompson married his first wife, Sarah Lindsey, when he was 17; they had three children, but have long been divorced. In 2002, he married his current spouse, Jeri, a former press officer for the Republican Party who is two decades younger than he is. They have a 3-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son. Jeri has emerged as a key adviser to her husband who doesn't mind ruffling feathers with her strong views, especially on personnel matters when she doesn't think her husband's aides are serving him well.

Thompson has also endured his share of tragedy. In January 2002, his 38-year-old daughter Betsy died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. He lost his interest in politics and didn't run for re-election to the Senate. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2004 but says he is now in remission.

Many remain skeptical of Thompson's presidential viability. Some say his good-old-boy appeal will not extend beyond the South—a contention disputed by his aides. A big question within the Washington punditocracy is whether he can handle the pressures of a presidential race. "Wait and see," a Thompson aide advises. "Judge us by what we do." That much he can count on. The real scrutiny of Fred Thompson has just begun.