After a Rough Start, Fred Thompson Prepares for His Mulligan

Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson acknowledges that his coming-out speech in California last weekend didn’t live up to expectations, advisers say, and he is planning a tighter and sharper message—dubbed “Stump Speech 2.0”—for a Saturday-night event to be attended by key conservative leaders.

Friends working on the speech say that it will include more of a call to arms than the entertaining but unfocused after-dinner address Mr. Thompson gave to an eagerly expectant audience on Friday night at the Balboa Bay Club and Resort in Newport Beach, Calif.

Saturday’s event will be a crucial audition in northern Virginia, where Mr. Thompson will be the keynote speaker at a dinner of the Council for National Policy, an organization of conservative leaders. Organizers say that he’ll be introduced by Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, who is among the most important voices of evangelical Christians.

Friends helping Mr. Thompson with the speech say that it will have more discussion of values issues than the Orange County outing, and will emphasize the importance of confirming conservative judges.

“It will be more of an effort to get people excited about the fact that conservatives can win in 2008,” said a person close to Mr. Thompson. “People found out last weekend that he didn’t walk on water, and he was a little rusty.”

Columnist Robert Novak, who sat at Mr. Thompson’s table at the filet-mignon-and-sea-bass dinner of the Lincoln Club of Orange County, wrote that the speech was “lackluster.”

An uncommitted G.O.P. strategist went further, saying that Mr. Thompson’s approach to a possible bid needs to be sharpened. Citing ballot access in early primary and caucus states as an example, the strategist said that Mr. Thompson’s team shows a “lack of understanding of what it takes to get in the race. It’s not just traveling around the country giving speeches.”

The consultant said Mr. Thompson needs a more comprehensive strategy to maximize his current buzz. “You need to start managing expectations. That was the biggest problem with the speech out there [in California]. You’ve got to deflate the bubble before it starts blowing up and before it pops.”

While the aura around Mr. Thompson’s prospective candidacy may have dimmed slightly after his less-than-stirring California performance, advisors say the Law & Order star remains enthusiastic about a possible Presidential campaign.

The advisors say Mr. Thompson continues to consider possible staff members and may make announcements as soon as this month, ahead of a formal launch in June or July.

Advisers to Mr. Thompson have started to reach out to G.O.P. consultants and operatives, but many of these uncommitted Republican strategists are reluctant to discuss the conversations for attribution. Indeed, the possibilities of a Thompson candidacy have created a buzz among G.O.P. professionals, with rampant rumors about who has or has not been approached.

“A lot of people who aren’t involved are throwing their name out, hoping they’ll get called,” said a top Republican consultant who hasn’t been called and didn’t want to throw his name out. Other strategists are taking the tack of trying to maintain a low profile, play hard to get, and hope the phone rings and they get tapped. This game of kabuki has also made it difficult for many G.O.P. insiders to figure out who is or is not part of the Thompson inner circle.

“In terms of who the Thompson people are, maybe some people know, but I don’t,” said one consultant. “Everybody has a different interpretation of who’s in the inner circle.” One Thompson backer has contacted Scott Howell’s media firm, but a source close to the firm says those conversations have been preliminary. Similarly, a different Thompson advisor has been in touch with a South Carolina consultant about possibly handling work in that state. But few know who actually has decision-making ability, and none want to be seen as advertising themselves in the media.

With Mr. Thompson performing well in polls, his initial stumble on the stump isn’t the only hurdle he’s facing: He has already become a target for the invisible hand of his would-be rivals. Referring to opposition research that is already beginning to be floated, one top strategist said: “He’s in this position of being branded before this thing gets going.”

Activists are calling attention to a Project Vote Smart questionnaire from Mr. Thompson’s days as a U.S. Senate candidate for Tennessee in 1994, when he indicated support for keeping abortion legal in the first trimester. His advisors note that he was endorsed by the anti-abortion community in that election and is an ardent opponent of abortion, although they do not claim past purity on the issue.

Some hard-core conservatives yearning for an alternative to the current field also say their fervor for Mr. Thompson cooled when they were reminded that he was an original co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill.

As a candidate, advisors say, Mr. Thompson would address that head-on by pointing out that he voted many times for higher contribution limits than were enacted, and that he is looking at defining campaign-finance laws in a way that would emphasize fewer restrictions, more disclosure and heavier penalties.

A poll released on Monday afternoon by CNN showed that among registered Republicans, Mr. Thompson remained in third place at 13 percent, in a statistical tie with Mitt Romney, who polled 10 percent. They were well behind Rudy Giuliani, at 25 percent, and John McCain, who tallied 23 percent. The poll was taken from May 4 to 6, around the May 5 Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.