The Mysterious Appeal of Fred Thompson

Five years ago, former Senator Fred Thompson seemed ready to say goodbye to White House dreams for good. He’d announced his re-election campaign in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, but seemed to lose steam after the death of his daughter a few months later, ultimately abandoning the run in the spring of 2002.

“At the funeral, I went over to him, and he was obviously just drained,” recalled Representative Zach Wamp of Tennessee. “And he said to me, ‘I’ve just lost my heart for [public] service. I’ve lost my heart.’”

So, like his fellow Tennessean, Al Gore, Mr. Thompson wound up nursing his psychic wounds in Hollywood’s warm embrace. And he married again, this time to Jeri Kehn, then a 35-year-old political-media consultant for Verner Liipfert in Washington; the couple now has two young children and a gorgeous home in the well-heeled Republican suburb of McLean, Va.

It’s a story that helps explain both his exit from and return to the national political stage in a tidy, family-friendly package—a parable of loss and restoration, with the hero rescued by the role of a lifetime, the love of a good woman and a return to domestic bliss. (The Barbara Walters special, as one political consultant noted, practically scripts itself.)

But it doesn’t quite explain the mystery of how and why the 64-year-old mid-level actor suddenly finds himself a news cycle or two away from joining the top tier of Republican Presidential candidates.

Right now, the former Senator is everywhere and nowhere—a man whose screen presence is ubiquitous, but who is, for the moment, rationing out major media interviews like a late-era Brando. Ever since he told Fox’s Chris Wallace on March 11 that he was contemplating a Presidential run—“I’m giving some thought to it. I’m going to leave the door open”—Republicans have been obsessively parsing his handful of public statements for clues to his intentions.

“Draft Thompson” Web sites appeared and exploded overnight—one site run by a 27-year-old salesman from Memphis received thousands of visitors in its first week alone. And Mr. Thompson’s home-state surrogates, former Senator Howard Baker and Mr. Wamp, flooded the airwaves with Thompson boosterism, racing through dozens of media requests.

(“I have a very good feeling about this,” Mr. Wamp said, juggling a cell phone in a Senate elevator as he squeezed in one last interview on his way from a hearing back to his office. “Very good.”)

Spurred by the flawed Republican line-up of Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney, conservative pundits and opinion journals fanned the flames. In late March, a National Review headline read, “Run, Fred, Run!” And in a column on April 2, Robert Novak called the former Senator a front-runner for the role of conservative “messiah.”

Meanwhile, the national press plunged dutifully into the Thompson-linked frenzy, with The Washington Post and USA Today leading a procession of inevitable “Law & Order candidate” headlines.

And Mr. Thompson’s every move across town is, suddenly, news, from his chummy lunch with Romney consultant Alex Castellanos at the Alexandria watering hole Landini’s, to his marathon Mayflower Hotel meetings with former R.N.C. chair Ed Gillespie and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

The buzz has been meticulously cultivated. In addition to the yeoman press work done by his surrogates, Mr. Thompson has now hired former Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo to handle national press. And his planned return to Washington later this month is being plotted with the precision of a military campaign. One advisor says there will likely be an official announcement of some kind within the next two months, if not sooner.

“[Thompson]’s not new at this game,” said Republican consultant Rich Galen. “He just wiggled his nose like that lady on Bewitched, and people swooned. They’re still swooning.

“I think it’s fascinating,” Mr. Galen added, “that by merely, in essence, verbally raising an eyebrow, he goes from not on the [Presidential] list at all to 12 percent.” (He was referring to the latest Rasmussen poll, which has the former Tennessee Senator in third place for the nomination.)

But Why Now?

So why Fred Thompson, and why now? Part of it, certainly, is cosmetic: Mr. Thompson’s craggy visage, comforting demeanor and, of course, considerable camera presence have inspired comparisons to Ronald Reagan from even the most level-headed G.O.P. operatives.

Most of Mr. Thompson’s acting roles have played like slickly produced Presidential auditions: the tough-but-fair military man, the tough-but-fair F.B.I. agent, the tough-but-fair prosecutor—even a President. Law & Order, in which Thompson plays a conservative Southerner who somehow managed to get elected Manhattan D.A., has functioned as an hour-long campaign commercial beamed into the nation’s collective cerebral cortex for the past five years.

“More people will watch Fred Thompson on Law & Order next week than will vote in both parties’ [super] primaries on Feb. 5 next year,” Mr. Galen said.

But the reason given most often by Republican activists and elected officials is simply that they are dissatisfied with the current crop of G.O.P. candidates.

“His success will be largely dependent on whether the current front-runners can somehow broaden their appeal and lock up the nomination early,” said American Conservative Union president David Keene, who said that “right now, there’s no evidence any of them can do that.”

Even Republicans who’ve already publicly pledged their support to one candidate or another seem to share the same grim outlook for the current field. Six in 10 G.O.P. primary voters are dissatisfied with the current crop of candidates, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll.

“McCain’s day has passed,” said one consultant who, six months ago, predicted victory for the Arizona Senator. “He hasn’t been able to make the transition from 2000 candidate to 2008—he hasn’t been able to lock up public support. I think he has a real problem.”

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney doesn’t seem to be catching on either; in the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, his support drops sharply, from first-tier candidate to asterisk-worthy 3 percent. “You spend millions on infrastructure, all for 3 percent?” Mr. Galen asked. “You are barely a serious candidate.”

And no one stands to be more immediately affected by a Thompson candidacy than Rudy Giuliani, who has so far gotten a pass from Republicans on his liberal social positions and complicated personal background because of a sense that he is the most “electable” candidate in the field.

Mr. Thompson’s prospective entry into the race resulted in an immediate double-digit drop for Mr. Giuliani in the USA Today/Gallup poll.

“It’s possible that none of those guys, regardless of their financial advantage, can put together the kind of support they need to get a majority of the delegates,” said Mr. Keene, talking about the pre-Thompson front-runners. “Then the common wisdom—that if you don’t have $100 million at the starting gates, you can’t win—may be wrong. Someone can come along and jujitsu the thing.”

Back to Reality

But still. Mr. Thompson is a candidate without an exploratory committee, a campaign war chest or a full-time staff. Apart from a few close friends, Mr. Thompson has, as yet, no real inner circle and no coterie of trusted advisors guiding his campaign.

At a time when most G.O.P. Presidential hopefuls are putting as much distance as they can between themselves and the Bush administration, Mr. Thompson has made a point of fund-raising for Scooter Libby’s defense fund.

And in terms of his actual policy positions, Mr. Thompson is hard to identify. He has supported drilling for oil in the Arctic, and is a supporter of gun-owners’ rights. But in other ways, he takes after moderate Republican Howard Baker, his old boss on the Congressional committee that investigated Watergate.

He supported campaign-finance reform and opposed tort reform. He doesn’t support gay marriage, but would still leave the issue up to the states rather than banning it outright. His position on abortion, while officially pro-life, can best be described as a work in progress.

And he supports some immigrant guest-worker programs.

It’s too soon to know whether his ideological squishiness will be a problem. But given the irrelevance of actual details this far into Mr. Thompson’s cinematic Presidential bid, maybe it won’t matter.

“Fred Thompson—well, he’s not Ronald Reagan,” said Mr. Keene. “But he’s done enough, and is well enough liked. He’s a fallback.”

The perfect role. The Mysterious Appeal of Fred Thompson