Fred Thompson’s easygoing, no-nonsense style is clearly his strength and undoubtedly has helped him soar in presidential polls. It may only get him so far. Sooner or later, the all-but-declared candidate will have to answer the question: What else do you offer?
“Smooth is good, but sometimes nitty gritty is essential,” says Tucker Eskew, a Republican strategist unaligned in the race. “He’ll be tested (but) he has a little time.”
Indeed, the actor and former Tennessee senator has bought himself a grace period; he hasn’t yet officially joined the 10-man GOP field. He’s raised at least several million dollars, assembled a nascent staff and visited early primary states New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Top candidates Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain mix it up daily, taking questions from voters and fleshing out their presidential agendas.
His stump speech consists of broad conservative themes, talk of bipartisanship and commentary on issues of the day, but it largely lacks any vision for the future of the country. He deflects questions on what a Thompson presidency would look like and demurs when pressed for specific proposals for how to fix the nation’s ills. He opines on hot topics, from taxes to terrorism, in online columns and on his Web site, usually without being challenged.
Aides say he has plenty of time to project his vision, and internal policy discussions are occurring. Yet, Thompson is starting to feel the heat of the presidential race.
Faced with questions about where he stands on abortion, he cites a National Right to Life endorsement in his 1994 Senate race and brags, “I was ranked 100 percent on abortion-related issues.” But the group gave him a less-than-perfect score in subsequent years, and a Project Vote Smart candidate questionnaire from 1994 indicated that he backed abortion rights in the first trimester.
Thompson also has been forced to defend his lobbying career amid questions about some of his clients, including deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
In response to such inquiries, Thompson told reporters: “Nobody yet has pointed out any of my clients that didn’t deserve representation.” That kind of statement is not likely to deter reporters from looking more closely any more than it did in 1987 when Gary Hart dared people to investigate him amid allegations of philandering. They did and he ended up withdrawing from the race for a time when an extramarital relationship was discovered.
Thompson also has had to deal with a few unforced errors. Last week, he felt the need to clarify a remark he made while criticizing the failed immigration overhaul bill in the Senate. He bemoaned illegal immigration from Cuba and elsewhere, and said: “I don’t imagine they’re coming here to bring greetings from Castro. We’re living in the era of the suitcase bomb.”
A day later, he posted an explanation on his Web site. Democrats assailed him for not understanding Cuban-Americans.
So far, the scrutiny and stumbles don’t appear to be hurting him.
Thompson backers credit what they call his Ronald Reagan-like style with his quick rise to the top tier in polls and argue that he’ll have staying power because of it.
They describe Thompson as having a laid-back, guy-next-door nature that puts people at ease around him. At the same time, they note he can be a commanding presence with his imposing 6-foot-5 frame, his unmistakable deep voice and his straight-talking way.
“He projects common sense to the complex problems of Washington,” said Michael Thompson, a South Carolina state representative who is not related to Thompson.
The White House aspirant put his Southern-tinged style on display in Columbia, S.C., last week. He pleased GOP activists with a 30-minute speech peppered with plainspoken points and folksy sayings. They clapped at his applause lines and laughed at his jokes as he commented on hot-button issues from Iraq and immigration to terrorism and taxes — and the dispirited state of the GOP.
“Our people think our party is back on our heels right now, but we ain’t gonna stay like that very, very long. We’re gonna get back on our toes where we belong,” Thompson said.
At ease behind the podium, he grinned broadly and spoke in a conversational manner, glancing at notes before him and gesturing often, his eyeglasses in one hand. He made a self-depreciating joke about the Senate and Hollywood, invoked Reagan and, in his deep drawl, used phrases like “hitched up our belts” and “the dogs ain’t eatin’ the dog food when they put that one out there.”
“His style was very different. It’s a little folksy, a little refreshing in a race that’s going to get spirited,” said Katon Dawson, the GOP chairman in South Carolina. Added Chip Felkel, a Republican consultant in the state: “I was impressed. He has the ability to talk to people like he’s sitting on their front porch.”
“I don’t see any political correctness. He tells it like it is,” gushed Charlie Lybrand, a county registrar in Charleston. “He is who he is.”
Still, for all Thompson’s style, he left others waiting to hear more substance.
“I like him a lot, but the jury’s still out on him until he tells us more,” said Thomas Gilbert, 76, who traveled from Fayetteville, Ga.
His wife, Margaret Gilbert, 73, agreed: “He’s a good speaker and said things I think that essentially most Americans agree with, but I really don’t know that much about him or what he’d do.”
Liz Sidoti covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.