Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator and "Law & Order" actor, is taking significant steps toward an expected summer entry into the crowded but extraordinarily unsettled Republican presidential race.
His likely candidacy could give restless conservatives somewhere to turn.
A crucial bloc of the GOP, those voters have not fully embraced the leading contenders, giving Thompson what his backers argue is an opening for a "true conservative" who can triumph in November 2008.
The 64-year-old Southerner would bring a right-leaning Senate voting record with a few digressions from GOP orthodoxy and a dash of Hollywood star power given his many movie roles and TV stint as the gruff district attorney on NBC's popular crime drama.
A Thompson bid also could make the contest to succeed President Bush even more topsy turvy; all three top-tier candidates â€” Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney â€” could lose some measure of support and the seven underdogs could become even more irrelevant.
Thompson will make his first formal campaign move in the coming days, establishing an official organization to weigh a White House bid while launching a major fundraising drive on Monday, according to several Republicans with knowledge of his plans.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because the timeline is not public, these officials said Thompson may visit early primary states in late June and could officially enter the race as early as the first week in July.
"Senator Thompson is still seriously considering getting into the presidential contest and he is doing everything he has to do to make that final decision," said Mark Corallo, a Thompson spokesman. "Stay tuned."
On Thompson's schedule in the coming weeks: a speech to Virginia Republicans in Richmond on Saturday and an appearance with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" on June 12. One official said an overseas trip also may be in the works.
For months, Thompson has openly flirted with a candidacy as a Tennessee-based effort sought to draft him into the race. He made several high-profile moves that pointed to a bid, not the least of which was disclosing that he is in remission after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of cancer.
His popularity in national polls spiked to double digits early in the year, but while he still fares well in surveys, his numbers have fallen following what some Republicans considered a subpar speech in early May in California. That's prompted some rumblings in GOP circles that Thompson may have missed his opportunity to make a splash in the race.
Undaunted, Thompson has been casting himself as a straight-talking conservative in the mold of former President Reagan in speeches and on the Internet.
"He's not Ronald Reagan, but he's Reaganesque," said Ted Malloch of Palm Beach, Fla., the chief executive of a consulting firm who is supporting Thompson. "Fred is unique in the sense that all the boxes have been checked."
During his 1994-2002 Senate tenure, he was considered a reliably conservative vote.
He worked to limit the role of the federal government and backed a ban on a late-term abortion procedure. He voted in favor of Bush's tax cuts, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, eliminating money for the National Endowment for the Arts and a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration. And, he voted against requiring criminal background checks for purchases at gun shows.
But he sometimes took paths that didn't necessarily sit well with conservatives, including advocating for campaign finance reform. While he voted to oust President Clinton from office, he also was one of 10 Republican senators who voted against one of the two impeachment charges.
Social issues, important to the party's right, also typically weren't at the top of his agenda. He was known less as a legislator and more as an investigator, leading the committee that examined former President Clinton's fundraising in 1996.
Yet, he established a reputation as a less-than-hard worker. The Democratic National Committee issued a research document Wednesday detailing Thompson's major legislative accomplishments. Save for the title and a DNC disclaimer, it was blank.
Thompson was one of the few senators who backed underdog McCain in 2000 over George W. Bush, the establishment candidate. This time around, Thompson would be opposing McCain â€” and could hurt his friend's own shot at the White House. The two have similar Senate records but Thompson could be seen as a fresher face to McCain, who is well-known to GOP voters.
Romney, who is trying to position himself to the right of the major candidates, also could see his support fall among conservatives concerned about his shifts on issues.
Campaigning in Iowa, Romney said he welcomed a Thompson entry. "I think he'll make the race more interesting. He's got good ideas and after all, he does put bad people in jail every week on 'Law & Order,'" he said.
Giuliani could be hindered as well if Thompson grabs the attention of Republicans uneasy with the former New York City mayor's support for gay and abortion rights.
Campaigning in California, Giuliani said he would welcome Thompson, but argued that he was the stronger candidate based on his record of cutting taxes and combatting terrorism as well as his ability to win a general election.
Ticking off states that went Democratic in 2004, such as California and New York, Giuliani said, "Those are all states Republicans gave away in the past and the Democrats took for granted. … It doesn't mean I'll win all of them, but if I win my fair share of them, then I'll get elected."
Over the next few days, Thompson plans to form a "testing the waters" committee called "Friends of Fred Thompson," which will allow him to begin raising money, hire staff and gauge support without officially committing to a White House bid.
He could significantly dampen the fundraising ability of his potential GOP rivals during the homestretch of the second quarter financial reporting period.
"It's going to cause everybody to have second thoughts about writing a check," said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who is unaligned in the race.
Thompson spoke on a conference call Wednesday to several dozen people who officials called "First Day Founders" and said committed to raising money for him. Participants said they were asked to raise $46,000 apiece, the $2,300 maximum from 10 couples or 20 people.
Officials cautioned that Thompson has made no final decision.