They worked the buffet line like newlyweds greeting guests at their wedding.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson and his bride, Jeri, made all the new friends they could at the Iowa Christian Alliance dinner in the Des Moines suburb of Clive on Saturday night.
They slowed down people on their way to the broasted chicken and mashed potatoes, shook hands and made mostly small talk — all while their young daughter, wearing pigtails and a pink party dress, looked on.
Dozens of folks asked to pose for pictures, but maybe because they see Thompson as a famous movie star and not necessarily as their first pick as the next president of the United States.
“He’s going to be given a good reception. He’s a candidate with credibility,” said one of the night’s hosts, Morris Hurd, chairman of the board of the Iowa Christian Alliance.
Credibility on which issues? “We don’t know,” Hurd admitted. “‘Skeptical’ is a word that also would describe our crowd here. I think we’re skeptical — on all the issues. We don’t know where he stands yet. We haven’t seen him taking any strong stands yet.”
Just a few short weeks since his heralded entry into the Republican presidential contest, Thompson doesn’t appear to have galvanized the GOP’s core, socially conservative constituency as some political analysts predicted he would.
His late entry, combined with a perceived reluctance to make definitive statements on issues like a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, has left some Christian “values voters” uncertain, said Iowa Christian Alliance President Steve Scheffler.
“Like some other candidates, he’s making some overtures to this base and he’s got a shot,” Scheffler said.
But supporting the marriage amendment is “an absolute essential,” Scheffler said, adding that none of the candidates can get away with vague “pro-family” rhetoric as they might have in the past.
By entering the race so late — with just a few months before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus votes in January — Thompson has precious little time to more clearly define himself. Others, especially former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, appeared to have more support among Iowa Christian Alliance members on Saturday night.
At one point in the receiving line, a man’s Huckabee sticker fell off while he was shaking Thompson’s hand, so the former senator from Tennessee picked it up and playfully slapped it back onto the man’s chest.
This is a critical time for Thompson to make inroads with religious conservatives if he is to emerge as the alternative to the moderate national front-runner, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, or the current Iowa favorite, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Last week, the newspaper Politico reported that Thompson was unlikely to win the unified support of The Arlington Group, a consortium of some of the most prominent religious conservatives in the country, because of uncertainty over his commitment to supporting the marriage amendment.
Thompson, who touts his 100 percent “pro-life” voting record, also has faced questions from abortion opponents over his brief lobbying for the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association.
Meanwhile, James Dobson, founder of the evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family, already has panned Thompson in a private e-mail published by the Associated Press.
“He has no passion, no zeal, and no apparent ‘want to.’ And yet he is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians?” Dobson wrote. “Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!”
Bob Haus, executive director of Thompson’s Iowa campaign, said the one-time lawmaker never expected unanimous support from religious conservatives.
“They’re not a unified bloc that has ever moved, I think, en masse,” Haus said. “They’ve always chosen their individual candidates just like any other important bloc does.”
So on Saturday, Thompson sat at a banquet table with his family, bowed his head in prayer like the rest of the crowd and shook hundreds of hands in the dinner line. He didn’t make any formal speech, and he barely made eye contact with the dozen or so journalists who chased him around like a conga line.
But he got to make small talk and answer quick questions from undecided voters like Charles Ziffer of Lorimor, Iowa.
Ziffer said he asked Thompson a simple question: whether the U.S. Constitution is a “living, breathing document, or did they write what they meant — leave it alone.” He said he liked the senator’s response: “They wrote what they meant.” But Ziffer’s still torn between supporting Thompson, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas or Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado.
“I just want somebody I don’t have to compromise my values for,” Ziffer said.
(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer at sprengelmeyerm(at)shns.com. Read his “Back roads to the White House” blog at http://blogs.rockymountainnews.com/denver/sprengelmeyer/)