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A thriving dark horse

The Baltimore Sun

STAMFORD, Conn. -- All right," Fred Thompson told a Connecticut Republican audience. "Let's get the announcement out of the way."

After a dramatic pause, the would-be presidential candidate declared: "Law & Order will return for an 18th season."

Thompson's teasing about an '08 campaign announcement could end soon. If reports out of his home base of Tennessee are accurate, he'll join the Republican contest in July.

For now, the former senator, better known as Arthur Branch, the gruff prosecutor on the television drama Law & Order, is doing quite well as an undeclared candidate.

"You got a guy that hasn't raised one penny ... and he's showing up second, third" in some polls, said Bob Davis Jr., a close adviser.

With national opinion surveys showing that most Republican voters are dissatisfied with their choice of candidates, Thompson, 64, is positioning himself to fill a void. He's shrewdly leveraged his celebrity and generated considerable buzz among Republican insiders. At the same time, he's largely avoided press scrutiny and the grind of coast-to-coast campaign stops and relentless fundraising pitches.

He's done it largely by exploiting an extensive and expanding network of conservative media outlets, old and new. In March, he revealed his interest in running to Fox News and followed up by giving interviews to conservative talk show hosts, magazines and columnists. He's made postings on conservative blogs, and his recent, tongue-in-cheek video response to liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, who criticized Thompson's fondness for Cuban cigars, has been viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube.

He's also a frequent fill-in for the 87-year-old radio icon Paul Harvey, whose daily broadcasts reach an audience of up to 18 million that tends to be older, rural, conservative and Republican.

One day after congressional negotiators unveiled their immigration reform deal, Thompson opened Harvey's show with a strongly worded attack on the plan, which, opinion polls indicate, is highly unpopular with conservative Republican voters. He ended by inviting listeners to read his other commentaries on ABC Radio's Web site (which he used last month to disclose that he is suffering from an "indolent lymphoma," a form of cancer).

His perch on the Harvey show is "huge," though hardly unprecedented, said Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. Ronald Reagan aired commentaries for several years before his 1980 run, and Patrick J. Buchanan was a CNN talk show host when he wasn't pursuing the nomination.

"It's so much more effective than [what] all these other guys have done who are spending $25 million," said Reed, referring to announced candidates who are buying television and radio ads in early primary and caucus states.

As long as Thompson isn't a candidate, his activities don't violate laws barring corporate political contributions. Neither do equal-time broadcast provisions apply at this stage of the campaign.

Rivals have avoided criticism of Thompson's activities, advisers to several of them say, for fear of appearing petty or alienating fans of a man who might not run.

Shortly after Thompson broadcast his opposition to the immigration deal, though, Sen. John McCain attacked him on the issue.

"I was a little disappointed in Fred," McCain said in a conference call with conservative bloggers. "He had a very different position not that long ago, but since he's not a declared candidate, I think that Fred will be able to articulate his position."

A McCain spokesman denied that the Arizona senator's remark reflected any pique over the broadcasts.

In spite of encouraging poll results, there are many questions about how well Thompson would do if he got into the race (which longtime friends who talk with him regularly say is increasingly likely but not certain).

His most recent speeches to Republican audiences, in Southern California and the other day in Connecticut, have drawn mixed reviews, reviving questions about Thompson's self-discipline and long-standing reputation for laziness. An appearance Saturday at a Republican gala in Richmond, Va., probably will draw the most attention yet to his skills as a stump speaker.

Thompson, the Alabama-born son of a used-car dealer, explored a run for president eight years ago but passed it up when it was clear that Texas Gov. George W. Bush held an overwhelming advantage.

These days, Thompson talks dismissively about the Washington "Beltway crowd," but he retains close ties to the capital establishment. He helped shepherd the Supreme Court nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. through the Senate, and he still makes his home in the Northern Virginia suburbs.

A lawyer, he served as counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee and is a protege of former Senate Republican Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. Divorced in 1985, he spent much of the 1990s in the company of a series of attractive women, but remarried in 2002. He and his wife, Jeri, a Republican consultant and his closest adviser, have two young children.

Thompson left elective office in 2002, after eight years in the Senate, not long after his grown daughter died from what was ruled an accidental drug overdose.

He is a strong supporter of President Bush's policy in Iraq but highly critical of the way the federal government has been run. Like McCain, he talks about fiscal discipline and has highlighted the need to deal with the rising cost of Medicare and Social Security.

For religious and social conservatives, many of whom have problems with the Republican candidates who are ahead in the polls, Thompson's views on issues such as abortion, guns and gay rights are "solid," said Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who described Thompson's Senate voting record as "very conservative."

"A lot of religious conservatives find Senator Thompson a tantalizing combination of charisma, gravitas and electability," said Land, who met privately with Thompson for an hour this month and has known him for years.

His homespun manner and skills as a television and radio communicator, as well as his work as an actor, often prompt comparisons to Ronald Reagan. In his Connecticut speech, Thompson dated his political coming of age to reading Sen. Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative in the early 1960s.

But his outsider image and message - "The biggest problem that we have today is what I believe is the disconnect between Washington, D.C., and the people of the United States," he says - could position him to compete with former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and McCain for independent votes.

Voters are looking for "somebody who can talk straight to them," he recently told Breitbart.tv, an Internet startup, echoing the campaign slogan of McCain, whose 2000 candidacy he actively supported.

The 6-foot-5-inch Thompson added that winning the Republican nomination would not be his ultimate goal.

"If I didn't think I could win in November, I wouldn't think about [running]. I'm not interested in being the tallest midget in the room, quite frankly. The man has got to fit the times," he said. "We'll see if that's the case."

paul.west@baltsun.com

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