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The returns are mixed on Fred Thompson’s first two months in the presidential race. The Republican candidate has battled criticism for his light campaign schedule, laid-back style and rambling speeches. He’s flubbed questions. He’s slipped some in national and early-primary polls.
Yet, he’s still competitive with Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain in many surveys. He turned in a pair of decent debate performances. And he raised $12.5 million over four months from 80,000 donors.
“Of all the candidates that are out there, he’s the one who most closely represents my values. He has my vote,” said Laura Clark, 39, a stay-at-home mom from Bedford, who hadn’t been convinced Thompson was her guy when she and her young daughter arrived Monday at a local inn to listen to him speak over breakfast.
Others weren’t sold — but indicated they could be if they knew more about him.
“He answered questions very completely. But I’m still undecided,” said Monica Zulauf, 51, the executive director of the YWCA of Manchester who sought an autograph from the actor-politician. “I’m waiting for a candidate who resonates on all fronts for me.”
Could Thompson be that person? “He might be,” she said.
Since becoming a full-fledged candidate Sept. 5, Thompson still hasn’t defined himself or his vision for many voters, presenting equal parts challenge and opportunity for the low-key Southerner little more than two months before voting begins.
He faces challenges from Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has spent millions on ads to introduce himself, as well as Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is widely recognized for his work following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Staff upheaval has dogged the Thompson campaign. The latest departure came Monday when Philip Martin, a co-chairman, resigned after a report about his decades-old criminal record for drug dealing.
Advisers say Thompson has been introducing himself on the campaign trail and, in the coming weeks, will turn to advertising to flesh out his biography and his agenda. They acknowledge that Thompson’s months-late entrance into the race caused some of the typical problems for a fledgling campaign. However, they argue, he is maturing as a candidate each day.
“This is exactly where we want to be. We are treated as a serious candidate,” Rich Galen, a Thompson adviser, said, calling the two-month performance “way better than a mixed bag.”
Still, Thompson has not become the conservatives’ consensus candidate that backers made him out to be this summer. His answers on abortion, in particular, have upset some.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, he said that “life begins at conception” but that he doesn’t support a federal constitutional amendment banning abortion.
That prompted GOP underdog Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, to claim: “Thompson’s philosophy seems to be more ‘cut and run’ when it comes to these issues, rather than stand and lead.”
Thompson told Fox News Channel on Monday: “Huckabee talks about this I suppose because it is the only conservative position he’s got.” He then criticized his rival for being “very weak on immigration policy” and being “one of the highest taxing governors that we had in this country.”
In New Hampshire for only the third time in two months, Thompson began the day telling about 100 people in Bedford that “our country is at a crossroads.” He emphasized a strong defense, saying: “We have yet to come to terms yet fully as a nation that we are in a global conflict that will not be resolved when the Iraq war is resolved.” He argued for secure borders.
Curiosity brought Kelly McGill, 35, an independent voter from Alexandria, N.H.: “I’m learning about him. That’s exactly why I’m here today — because I don’t know a lot.”
Later, in Rochester, N.H., Thompson toured a manufacturer of hunting rifles, Thompson Center Arms, a Smith and Wesson Co. that McCain had visited recently, and then delivered his pitch to some 350 workers.
He elicited supportive hoots and hollers when he said: “I’ve been a strong supporter of the Second Amendment.”
A consultant at the company, Roland Cox, 56, liked what he heard. “I was going to look into him, and now I’m sure I’m going to look into him,” the independent voter said.
Thompson returns on Tuesday to South Carolina, a must-win state for the Tennessean. Although he’s bunched at the top of polls there, interviews with voters over the weekend show he has work to do.
“I don’t know much about the man. He was a TV star and all that, and I’m sure he’s a decent man. But I’ve not heard him talk here. He hasn’t looked me in the eyes,” said Jim Clark, 64, a retired insurance agent and Vietnam veteran in Irmo, S.C.
Upstate in Simpsonville, Jim Schroder, 42, a project manager, said he had all but ruled out Thompson. “I don’t know enough about him. I know he was an actor on TV and a senator. There was a lot of hype on him. But the question is does he want it enough?”