Thompson In the Race,
Will Announce Formally in Sept.
Fred Dalton Thompson is running for president, hoping to weave his "Law & Order" persona and real-life Senate career into a compelling narrative that will appeal to conservative Republican voters in the primary and then the broader electorate next year.
In a telephone conference call with elected and party officials, Thompson campaign manager Bill Lacy stopped playing coy: he told them Thompson is finished "testing the waters" and will file papers to be a candidate next Thursday. Lacy laid out plans for a formal announcement to come late next week -- first in an online webcast and then with trips to the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
"They made it very clear that on Sept 6 they will be filing their papers and we'll be into the race," said Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who was on the call. "People were excited to know that he is moving forward."
Thompson's long-anticipated entrance into the race sets in motion a battle among three leading candidates for the Republican nomination as the presidential campaign moves into the fall season, when voters begin to pay attention and candidates ramp up their activites. Standing squarely in Thompson's way is former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
"Romney's trying to consolidate his position on the right. Giuliani's trying to solidify his position [as] national frontrunner," said Mike Murphy, a GOP consultant who advised Arizona Sen. John McCain during his 2000 White House campaign. "The new factor will be: can Fred Thompson launch a campaign successfully?"
That is an open question. Even in its infancy, Thompson's campaign has been plagued by staff shakeups and unexplained delays in announcing his candidacy. And the former senator's long career as a lobbyist and lawyer have already exposed political weaknesses, including controversial clients and a brief stint working on behalf of a pro-choice group.
Even with those problems, an unannounced Thompson has done well in national and regional polls, establishing himself in a solid second-place position nationally and with strong support in some of the important primary states.
Added Murphy: "What you really have got to do is to take this great, mythic Fred Thompson that everyone seems to be interested in and somehow campaign on a day to day basis."
That effort will apparently begin Wednesday. Even as his rivals are debating on Fox that night, Thompson is tentatively scheduled to be in Burbank, taping an appearance on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," according to sources close to the campaign. A official with NBC-Universal said Thompson is tentatively scheduled to be on the show that night.
A day later, his campaign will unwrap a slickly-produced online video in which Thompson explains his reasons for wanting to be president. And then he will start campaigning in person.
"The first part of this effort, we need to let people know who Fred is and what he stands for," said one of his top advisers, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about his plans. "His challenges are twofold: to let people know who he is [and to] continue to raise money to fuel the campaign."
The advisers said Thompson is likely to continue the themes he has been sounding in limited campaigning so far: a need for better national security, a focus on fiscal discipline and a desire to refocus on core Republican principles -- immigration reform, limited government and federalism.
In a speech to a Republican group last week, he weaved together a series of folksy jokes with a pessimistic critique of the nation's current direction.
"I do not think we have come together as a nation and come to terms with the length and duration and expense and commitment that it's going to take to meet the threat that we have in Islamic terrorism and radicalism," he told the audience at the Midwest Leadership Conference in Indianapolis.
On economic policy, he warned the group that "we are doing steady damage to our economy, and if we don't do things better it's going to result in economic disaster to future generations and we are going to leave this place weaker for future generations."
His style, aides said, is likely to borrow from his successful Senate campaigns, in which he used a beat-up red pickup to project an image of down-home charm. But aides have concluded that runnign for president requires a more polished approach. The campaign is still working on the right balance -- Thompson was mocked recently for wearing Gucci loafers at the Iowa state fair.
"My sense is if we can make it through the first 30 days, we'll win," said on Thompson adviser.But Thompson's long tease has given his rivals plenty of time to strategize about how to deal with his particular brand of Hollywod-tinged campaigning.
Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman, said his candidate will igrnore Thompson as much as possible, focusing instead on the need to increase Romney's name identification across the country.
"We deal with it by sticking to our plan," Madden said. "The question is: How does Governor Romney gain more support with Republican primary voters? The answer is talking about his ideas and where he stands."
Giuliani advisers believe Thompson may seek out a confrontation with Romney as both men try to appeal to conservatives in the party who are uncertain about the New York mayor because of his positions on gun rights, abortion and immigration.
"There is a competition between others to be the conservative who takes them on," said one Republican consultant not affiliated with the campaign. "That competition to be the guy who can then have the fight with Giuliani."
Another GOP consultant said Thompson will have trouble making that case.
"He's got this sheen as a conservative savior," said the consultant, who asked not to be named criticizing Thompson. "It's very clear his record is exactly the opposite. ... He's a centrist who voted for campaign finance reform, known as someone who was not a reliable conservative vote and with a conflicting record as a Washington insider-lobbyist."
One Romney strategist predicted that the challenge for all three leading Republicans will be to become the most complete Republican candidate: one that's right on national security, social issues and electability.
"Do we want to elect somebody who is only two-thirds Republican," the strategist asked, "or do we want to represent all of the important platforms of the Republcian party?"
--Michael D. Shear
UPDATE: Read Thompson's official plans for his announcement.
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