Thompson Reaches to the Right
Laying the groundwork for evangelical support
For months, conservative evangelical activists have been fretting over a Republican presidential field whose front-runners are the pro-abortion rights Rudy Giuliani, the formerly pro-gay rights Mitt Romney, and John McCain, who once lambasted Jerry Falwell. Activists took little consolation in more socially conservative candidates, like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee or Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who seemed doomed by low name recognition. Now the Christian right is eyeing former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, who is thought to be on the verge of entering the race. And Thompson is waging a rigorous behind-the-scenes effort to win its support.
U.S. News has learned that Thompson recently hired Bill Wichterman, who served as conservative outreach director for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Joseph Cella, president of a conservative Catholic group called Fidelis, to lead the effort. The aides are arranging more meetings between Thompson and conservative Christian leaders and have launched a rapid-response operation to fend off attacks on Thompson's conservative credentials.
The success of the effort is by no means ensured; in March, Focus on the Family's James Dobson told U.S. News that he doubted Thompson was really a Christian. But Dobson and Thompson have since talked, with Dobson rumored to be reassessing Thompson. And prominent social conservative Paul Weyrich, who met recently with Thompson and evangelical activists, said the former senator "was in agreement with us on almost everything."
For Thompson, the timing couldn't be better. McCain's campaign is reeling from staff departures and cutbacks, and Giuliani faces fierce opposition from Christian right leaders. So Thompson's team is betting that the GOP primaries will turn into what one adviser calls a "Thompson-Romney duel," since Romney is the one top-tier Republican lobbying hard for evangelical support. "If he gets strong support from evangelicals, Thompson could reshape the race," says the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life's John Green.
Thompson is emphasizing his eight-year record as a senator from Tennessee and his campaign endorsements from the National Right to Life Committee. "It didn't look like he was saying what a group of Christian consultants told him to say," says Harry Jackson, a black pastor who met recently with Thompson. "He seemed to be saying, 'I'm one of you.'"
Contrasts. Jackson has also met with Romney but notes that Thompson has a conservative Senate voting record, while Romney's conservatism has come in just the past few years. "Romney has done a superb job reaching out," says Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. "But it takes a long time to establish that trust and credibility."
Many evangelical leaders are leaning toward Thompson but are waiting to see how he holds up under increased scrutiny once he officially enters the race. "There's a deliberate attempt by evangelical leaders to come to consensus," says Jackson. David Barton, an evangelical activist who spearheaded pastor outreach for the Republican National Committee in 2004, says "the leaders I talk to are all really interested in Thompson, but they're waiting to pull the trigger [on endorsements] until later this year."
Thompson still faces stumbling blocks among rank-and-file evangelicals, including his own reputation as an infrequent churchgoer. But "Thompson's very good on the defense of normal marriage and free expression of religion," says one time presidential candidate Gary Bauer. "Frankly, he might have an easier time...if he's not easily labeled as 'religious right.'"
Still, Thompson's past statements in support of keeping early-term abortions legal and his role in crafting the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law have attracted criticism. "He's not fundamentally committed to the life of the unborn child," says evangelical home-schooling advocate Michael Farris, a Huckabee supporter. Last week, the Los Angeles Times alleged that Thompson had even lobbied for an abortion-rights group. But Thompson's Christian outreach team quickly E-mailed a detailed denial to conservative leaders. Within hours, evangelical activists were chatting with reporters, quoting straight from Thompson's talking points. The story's damage wasn't undone, exactly. But the response may have been a signal that evangelicals are ready to join the Thompson team.
This story appears in the July 23, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.