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Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson’s Republican supporters see him as a potential dark-horse candidate poised to gallop in and represent the party’s more conservative wing in the 2008 presidential election.
The “Law & Order” star’s detractors see him as a Johnny-come-lately whose entry would sap the front-runners’ support and “is a reflection that the Republican Party is scrambling to find a candidate to unite them,” said Wade Munday, a spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party.
In many ways, Thompson’s toe-testing of the presidential waters could do all of these things.
Though Thompson’s announcement last week that he has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was largely seen as a signal that he may seriously consider a presidential bid, he has yet to declare his candidacy.
However, since his name first surfaced last month in Washington political circles as a possible presidential candidate, the hype surrounding Thompson has swelled.
The buzz has largely been fueled by growing concern among some segments of the Republican Party that the current front-runners lack either the proper conservative credentials or have personal liabilities — sometimes both. Adding to the faithful’s sense of restlessness are concerns about President Bush’s low approval ratings and waning support for the Iraq war and whether this will affect the GOP’s ability to keep the White House.
“Is there concern in the Republican race? Absolutely,” said Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, an online, nonpartisan analysis of politics. “There’s not a conventional conservative. McCain’s not. Giuliani is one or two notes off.”
Sen. John McCain’s campaign is trying to regain its footing after raising $12.5 million — far less than some of his competitors. The Arizona senator also has weathered a disappointing showing in several national polls and a chilly reception from many GOP conservatives.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani hasn’t fared much better. Though he’s raised more money and has placed well in polls, some conservatives question his position on social issues and he’s struggled to curry favor with that group.
Then there are the marriages — five between the two candidates.
As a Mormon, financial front-runner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney may face a challenge from the party’s religious right, said Bruce Oppenheimer, a political-science professor at Vanderbilt University.
“Oh, there are questions. Questions about their personal lives. There are some people who feel that the current field of candidates have liabilities,” Oppenheimer said.
His status as a respected television and film actor lends a degree of star quality to his candidacy. His background as a former senator and as one of the attorneys who helped the Senate Watergate Committee’s investigation makes him an attractive candidate, said a longtime friend, former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker.
“I’ve encouraged him to run, and I think he will run,” Baker said.
That type of “encouragement” helped prompt U.S. Reps. Zack Wamp and John J. Duncan, both R-Tenn., to form a “Draft Fred Thompson 2008″ committee last month.
“Fred has this innate ability to know when there’s an opportunity. He does this with great ease,” said longtime friend Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “If anyone can step in at this moment in time and step up, it’s Fred.”
Last week’s Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll placed Thompson just behind Giuliani and ahead of McCain. However, his top would-be competitors have raised more than $10 million this year, have staffs in place and have been campaigning for months.
Some political experts have questioned whether Thompson will be able to keep up with the pace of a presidential campaign. Others caution that the honeymoon phase with the media and voters will soon end and tough questions about his stance on issues will quickly follow.
Thompson stopped just short of declaring his candidacy during an interview with Fox News last week. It may be time for Thompson to get off the “sidelines” and step into the fray, Oppenheimer said.
(Contact Halimah Abdullah of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., at www.commercialappeal.com.)