DES MOINES—The crowd was modest in size, but it did respond well to Fred Thompson's applause lines. "Preseason is over," the former Tennessee senator declared in announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. The audience of 200 broke into cheers when he added, "Let's get on with it."
Many Republicans had been waiting for that moment a long time—some say too long—as Thompson mulled over whether to run. At his kickoff here last week, he had clearly decided on the message: He is not part of the Washington establishment, and he's the only authentic conservative who can win the general election.
If the crowd in exhibition room 205 in the Des Moines convention center wasn't vast, it was committed. "As a very conservative Republican, my view is that conservatives are not represented by the current candidates in the race," says Don Steadman, 75, a silver-haired retired Army colonel from Des Moines. "I see [Thompson] in the vogue of President Reagan." Mike Jackson, 47, a mortgage-loan officer from Winterset, says "it's about time" a true conservative joined the race. "
Behind? But now comes the hard part—running a campaign. And even Thompson aides acknowledge that he has to start fast, since the other GOP contenders have been raising money and establishing organizations in key states for many months. A big test will come September 27, when Thompson will participate in a GOP presidential debate in Baltimore. There are a lot of people who "don't know a lot about his authentic conservative record," says Thompson spokesman Todd Harris. "He shares the values of the average conservative voter, and he can win next year." Yet he also has a conciliatory style, and his backers say he wouldn't be a polarizing figure at a time when so many Americans are upset with the rancor of Washington. This is a dig against both GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani and Democratic leader Hillary Clinton, who come across as divisive figures. His aides also draw a contrast with both Giuliani and GOP candidate Mitt Romney when they say Thompson won't need "on-the-job training" as a conservative if he wins the White House.
Thompson was elected twice to the Senate and was well liked by his colleagues. And his conservative record has impressed Republican voters so much that he remained in the top tier of GOP presidential candidates in national polls even while he was a noncandidate. His answer to many of the nation's problems is to encourage the states to take action rather than have the federal government "meddle" where it has no competence or business, aides say. He favors limited government, low taxes, balanced budgets, free markets, the "sanctity of life," a strong national defense, and what a senior aide calls "an aggressive posture in the war on terror." He supports President Bush's policies in Iraq and says he takes his cues from American soldiers there. "They know if we abandon our efforts or appear weak and divided, we'll pay a heavy price for it in the future," says Thompson.
But the candidate, 65, still has a lot to prove. His exploratory committee raised only $3.4 million in the last quarter, well below the $5 million supporters had expected. His campaign staff has been rocked by turmoil and defections, and Thompson delayed his announcement for months. But allies say the postponement enabled him to avoid media scrutiny and create a sense of expectation that he will be the conservatives' dream candidate—a latter-day Ronald Reagan.
Thompson, like Reagan, had a career outside politics. The Tennessean was a trial lawyer and sometime actor on TV and in movies. He is well known for playing Arthur Branch, the tough-talking New York district attorney on Law & Order, and for roles in hit movies including Die Hard 2 and The Hunt for Red October. He has played a president three times.
Growing up. The son of a used-car salesman and a stay-at-home mother in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., Thompson never seemed destined for the White House. Earlier in his career, he worked as a prosecutor in Tennessee and as a Washington lobbyist. He also served as the pipe-smoking minority counsel during the Senate Watergate hearings, where he got to know Hillary Clinton, then a junior counsel for the Democrats.
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.