Taking a page from Reagan's script

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Conservatives often ridicule Democrats for espousing the "culture of Hollywood." But in the latest sign of Republican discontent with the field of 2008 presidential hopefuls - and in a familiar plot twist - some of those same activists are eyeing a movie actor as the party's potential savior.

Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee who once played a White House chief of staff on the big screen and appears now as a politically savvy prosecutor on TV's Law & Order, is positioning himself to answer the call - and perhaps follow the script that saw Ronald Reagan jump from Hollywood to the White House.


Thompson is scheduled to visit Capitol Hill in a few weeks, a trip designed to dovetail with efforts by three well-connected Tennessee friends to line up support for drafting him into a GOP campaign that has left many core Republican leaders discouraged.

One of those friends, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, has called for a Thompson candidacy in postings on his political action committee's blog. Meanwhile, Howard Baker, another former Senate majority leader who also served as a White House chief of staff under Reagan, and Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican, have been recruiting congressional endorsements.


Thompson "is in the process of getting his personal affairs in order so this has a chance of happening," said Wamp, who spoke with Thompson.

Wamp said about 40 House members are interested in meeting with Thompson. Frist told supporters Friday that Thompson was interested in hearing their reactions.

"Now is the time for big ideas ... big, true conservative ideas that rise above the fray," Frist wrote on his Web site.

Noting that he spoke with Thompson on Thursday night, he added, "Fred is listening. He will carefully consider running over the next several weeks."

Plenty of obstacles remain for Thompson - or any other candidate who would enter the fray - given that other presidential aspirants have secured major endorsements and hired strategists, while investing millions of dollars to build networks in the early-voting primary states.

But the effort coalescing behind Thompson underscores the extent to which leading conservatives are dissatisfied with a GOP race that has front-runner status being staked out by former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a moderate on abortion and gay rights. The leading alternatives to Giuliani have not quelled the disenchantment - top conservatives remain wary of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney suffers from his one-time moderation on a variety of social issues.

Romney has disavowed those positions and stressed his commitment to conservative causes. He won a straw poll at a recent conference of conservative activists in Washington - but even after busing supporters to the event, he came out on top with just 21 percent of the vote.

"That's not what I would call a ringing endorsement," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organized the gathering.


"People are looking at the field and saying consumers are not going to buy the product," Keene added. "At a certain point, you can put a new one on the market and clean up."

Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who introduced Romney at the conservative conference, said an opening remains for a viable alternative.

"You can write the scenario where any one, or every one, of the [leading GOP contenders] weakens, and a strong candidate can jump in," he said.

Norquist, along with some other conservative leaders, is frustrated that one of their favorites - former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush - has ruled out a candidacy, in part because of his link to his brother, President Bush.

"I'm a big fan of the Jeb Bush scenario, but he's just decided no, no, no, and Bush fatigue may be stronger than I thought it was," Norquist said.

Another prospective answer to the prayers of some conservatives is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. His recent admission of an extramarital affair while he pressed for impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton was seen partly as an effort to inoculate himself from future criticism of his personal life.


But Gingrich has made no direct moves toward organizing supporters or, perhaps most importantly, raising money. And many, even within the conservative movement, view him better-suited in the role of political theorist than practical politician.

As GOP leaders survey both sides of the emerging presidential campaign, many express concern that only Democrats are excited about their options - energized by what is shaping up as a titanic battle featuring Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

With that in mind, allies of Thompson say the folksy 64-year-old would bring made-for-television star power to a GOP field lacking that quality.

Thompson, for his part, is proceeding cautiously, careful to avoid criticizing the current crop of contenders (he was McCain's national co-chairman in 2000) and tamping down the notion that he appears to be angling for the job.

"One advantage you have in not, you know, having [the presidency] as a lifelong ambition is that if it turns out that your calculation is wrong, it's not the end of the world," Thompson said in a recent interview on Fox News.

But Thompson, whose spokesman said he would not comment for this article, is taking steps that serve to accentuate the buzz around a possible candidacy.


During the Fox News interview, he staked out solidly conservative positions on key issues, opposing gay marriage, gun control and the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.

This month, he tried to secure a coveted speaking slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where several candidates appeared and that straw poll that Romney won was conducted. Unaware that Thompson was considering a White House bid, organizers told him the docket was full.

Thompson used a recent essay on the National Review magazine's Web site to distance himself from the troubles of the Bush White House and make a case for competence as a campaign theme.

"Whether it's the Katrina response, the problems at Walter Reed Medical Center, or the IRS and FBI which can't get their computer systems working, it seems like we've lost our ability to take care of some of the most basic duties of government," he said.

He was elected to fill a partial Senate term in 1994, easily won re-election in 1996 and then decided to step down in 2002. Around the same time, he was cast as District Attorney Arthur Branch on Law and Order .

Divorced, Thompson long was known for an active social life that included a relationship with country music star Lori Morgan. He remarried in 2002.


Peter Wallsten and Janet Hook write for the Los Angeles Times.