For Iowans, Thompson Has 'Reagan-like Appeal'
Nevada, Iowa--As he toured an ethanol plant in Iowa, adding a green hard hat to his ensemble of blue shirt, khakis and blazer, the former Tennessee Senator wasn't like most candidates in these kinds of photo-ops. As a plant manager showed him the control room and other parts of Lincolnway Energy in Nevada, Iowa Fred Thompson wasn't asking detailed questions or looking particularly closely at the computers or other equipment at the plant. Arms folded across his chest, he smiled and nodded as the manager told him about ethanol production, with a longer nod if it seemed an important point was being made. When the manager saw a couple of employees sitting down, the candidate waved at them, nodded and then finally walked the few feet to shake their hands and introduce himself.
Thompson is quite an unusual politician. His acting background would suggest a special kind of charisma or skill at public speaking, but now on his second swing through Iowa, he didn't whip up the excitement of a crowd or sound particularly eloquent or inspiring as Barack Obama or John Edwards often do. Instead of being eager to shake hands and meet voters when he finishes his speeches, he ambles toward them, speaks in a deep, but muted tone and poses for pictures or answers questions, often without making eye contact.
And while Thompson is the candidate who has been out of the government the longest except for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, he's able to drift into Washington-speak pretty easily, employing terms like "mandatory spending" in talking about Social Security. At the same time, he can be almost comically vague at times, such as when asked in Fort Dodge about what he would do to about illegal immigration, he declared it was important to "first of all recognize it's a problem," even though illegal immigration is perhaps the most acknowledged problem in America, particularly among Republicans.
At the same time, at 6'5" he towers over nearly everyone around him, which along with his voice makes him seem like a person who should be in charge. And he's the candidate who makes his often rather bland statements sounds profound. Elections tend to be more about character than policy plans, and Thompson's remarks tend to reinforce his claim that's he's a "commonsense conservative." No matter, the question, he always comes back to principles, mainly these: America good, big-government bad. "I've got a real creative approach, let's continue doing what works and quit doing what doesn't work in this country," he said to applause at every stop. "Cutting taxes works," he added.
In interviews, several Iowa residents said that Thompson had Ronald Reagan-like appeal, but also noted they wanted to hear more details from him on his stance on issues. Aides said they're hearing this from voters and they press and will address this concern. At the same time, Thompson, in some ways like Obama on the Democratic side, isn't running as an innovator on policy, as his stances on most key issues resemble that of his GOP rivals. He's instead arguing he will make a better leader and along with security and prosperity "unity" is one of his key principles he notes in every speech.
--Perry Bacon Jr.
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