What would Fred Thompson bring to the Republican race? As a former senator, he's well connected. As an actor, he's well known. "He is well known on a soft level," says Republican strategist David Winston. "One of the challenges he faces is to flesh out the details."
Some Republicans see Thompson as the answer to their prayers: another Ronald Reagan—meaning, a conservative who's also a winner. Thompson recently asked a conservative audience at the Lincoln Club in California, "You ever wonder why, when our problems seem to be getting larger, so many of our politicians seem to be getting smaller?"
Thompson is not small. He's 6 feet, 6 inches tall and seems big in other ways, too. "Stature," conservative commentator Bill Bennett recently told CNN. "Everyone knows who he is. He's famous. He has a Reaganite quality, including the fact that he's a movie star. He has a tremendous voice and presence."
For decades, conservatives struggled to take over the Republican Party. They remember Reagan as the man who led them to power. They're worried that the current front-runners for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination may challenge the conservative ascendancy.
Mitt Romney? "A little convenient in the switching of his positions," Bennett said. John McCain? "A little too mavericky" in Bennett's view. Rudy Giuliani? "He's out there on social and domestic issues in a way that a lot of the [conservative] base may be willing to accept but isn't happy with."
And Thompson? "Fred Thompson, in the imagination, feels like the bowl of porridge that is just right," Bennett said. "But the tasting is yet to occur."
Is Thompson a reliable conservative? He supported campaign finance reform, which conservatives hate. And an evangelical leader once complained that Thompson didn't talk enough about his faith.
But on Iraq, Thompson's conservatism seems staunch. "I don't think the American people are going to turn the keys to this country over to a party who invest their political capital in defeat," Thompson said.
One way to get conservative juices flowing is to take on filmmaker Michael Moore, as Thompson did recently. "You know, the next time you're down in Cuba visiting your buddy Castro, you might ask him about another documentary filmmaker," Thompson said in a Web video addressed to Moore. "His name is Nicolas Guillen. He did something Castro didn't like, and they put him in a mental institution for several years, giving him devastating electroshock treatments. Mental institution, Michael. Might be something you ought to think about."
What clinches the sale for many conservatives is that Thompson looks like a winner. "This is the guy we need to beat the ultimate Democratic nominee," South Carolina state Sen. John Hawkins said. "And if we're ever going to be able to beat them, the person to do it is going to be Fred Thompson." At a time when Americans are concerned about physical security, Thompson has been described as "the ultimate Papa Bear."
Reagan was anti-Washington. He used to talk about "puzzle palaces on the Potomac." Running against Washington is Thompson's specialty. "You wouldn't think we have to make the lower-tax case again," he told the Lincoln Club, "but you have to make it every day in Washington, D.C."
Thompson has been a senator and a Washington lawyer and lobbyist going all the way back to Watergate, when he served as chief Republican counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee. But he campaigns as a Washington outsider. When he first ran for the Senate in 1994, Thompson wore a flannel shirt and drove a pickup truck all over Tennessee, calling for term limits. He plays the role of outsider. To prove it, he got out: Thompson left the Senate in 2002, at the end of his first full term. Good timing, because that's when the Bush administration started to get into trouble.
Now, once again, Thompson is positioned to run against Washington. "I think the biggest problem that we have today is the disconnect between Washington, D.C., and the people of the United States," Thompson told an audience in Connecticut.
At a time when voters have lost confidence in the Bush administration and are desperate for change, an anti-Washington candidate could be very interesting, especially if he's a Republican.