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Fred Thompson Still Testing Presidential Waters

August 21, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: If he walks and talks like a presidential candidate, why isn’t he? Former Tennessee Republican Senator Fred Thompson made the latest in a round of distinctively candidate-like appearances today at a veteran’s convention in Kansas City.

FORMER SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R), Tennessee: But if we appear to be divided and weak in this nation that it is going to ennoble an enemy and make our country more dangerous.

GWEN IFILL: Thompson’s exploratory summer has taken him to the unconventional arena of the World Wide Web.

FRED THOMPSON: I’m for adult stem-cell research.

GWEN IFILL: And in the extremely conventional arena of the Iowa state fair last weekend, he offered his rationale for running, an appeal to conservative Republican voters dissatisfied with the announced field.

FRED THOMPSON: I am unabashedly pro-life. I am pro-Second Amendment. And I don’t apologize for the United States of America. This country has shed more blood for the freedom of other people than all of the other nations in the history of the world combined, and I’m tired of people feeling like they’ve got to apologize for America.

GWEN IFILL: Thompson, as well-known for his acting roles in movies and television as for his time in Washington, has straddled many worlds: as a lawyer on the Senate Watergate Committee in the 1970s; as a long-time Washington lobbyist; as a nine-year veteran of the United States Senate; and most famously as District Attorney Arthur Branch on the long-running NBC series “Law and Order.”

Early surveys show Thompson polling well in critical battleground states, but the “I’m with Fred” bandwagon has hit some speed bumps, too. He first denied, then conceded that he was paid to lobby the first Bush administration on behalf of Planned Parenthood.

There have already been several departures from his pre-campaign inner circle, and he failed to meet expectations when early excitement about his potential candidacy yielded only $3.4 million for his exploratory campaign. One third of that amount came from his home state.

Possible September announcement

GWEN IFILL: We get more now on waiting for Fred Thompson from Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today. Welcome, Susan.

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Fred Thompson in Iowa last week, the first thing he said to this crowd was, "If I were you, I'd be asking, who is this guy, and why is he here?" What's the answer to that question?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think he's running for president. I interviewed him back in May, and it was clear to me then that he was running for president. But he's done a very slow striptease to get to the point he is now, where we think, we think finally he's right on the verge of jumping in.

GWEN IFILL: What does that mean? What is "right on the verge," now, next month, the month after?

SUSAN PAGE: His people say that, in September, he'll announce. We're looking probably at the week after Labor Day for that announcement. He's accepted a September 5th debate in New Hampshire with the other Republican candidates. He's accepted a forum in Michigan later in September. So it seems pretty clear that he's getting in the race.

GWEN IFILL: What is the rationale on the part of the Thompson people for waiting this long?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think he needed to get his ducks in a row. He didn't have a campaign staff. He didn't have a kind of inner circle of campaign strategists. You know, he hasn't run for office since 1996, so I think he felt he needed to get that organization together and also to raise some money.

Unhappiness with the field

GWEN IFILL: OK, so let's look at the potential for a Fred Thompson candidacy. What are his strengths?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, you know, his biggest strength is unhappiness with the field that's out there now. About a third of Republicans say they wish somebody else would get in the race. Core Republicans, especially social conservatives, are particularly dissatisfied with the choices they have now.

Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, has been the steady frontrunner nationally, but he is unacceptable to a significant portion of the core Republican vote. That's the opening that Fred Thompson hopes he can appeal to.

GWEN IFILL: And so then what are his weaknesses?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, he hasn't run in a while. He's not particularly well-known. In our survey, USA Today-Gallup poll, about half of Americans say they either have never heard of him or don't know enough to have an opinion of him.

GWEN IFILL: Even with the "Law and Order" reruns and constant reruns?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, some Fred Thompson people say, people may not realize that he's that character they like so much, that prosecutor who puts so many bad people away on "Law and Order." But even so, he's not as well-known as you might think.

And he's not been out there -- you know, campaigning for president is a hard thing to do. And he hasn't been out there getting answers to tough questions, subjecting himself to the kind of scrutiny until these last few months. So these are all hurdles for him. Organizationally, too, in a state like Iowa, which will have the opening caucuses, that's a very organization-intensive kind of contest. He does not have that infrastructure in place.

Southern states could help Thompson

GWEN IFILL: You talk about the kinds of issues, the tough questions that he's got to answers. One of them which has already been haunting him is this question about his stand on abortion and the question that he once lobbied during his career as a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood. Did that hurt him at all?

SUSAN PAGE: I think it did. I think it hurt him some. It's not a good storyline for a candidate to have. He looked less-than-straightforward and looked a little muddled when he gave that answer.

However, his voting record as a senator was consistently against abortion. He doesn't face the same hurdle on the abortion issue that, say, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, does, where he has clearly changed position on abortion. So I think that was a stumble, but I don't think it was really a fall.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned how so many voters seem to be dissatisfied with the rest of -- especially the Republican field, and therefore this may be an opening for him. What is it that he brings that these candidates lack potentially?

SUSAN PAGE: You know, people who like him say he has the potential to be another Ronald Reagan-kind of candidate, that is, kind of a likable guy, charismatic, of course, has the acting background, as Ronald Reagan did, consistently conservative and appealing to core Republican voters, non-threatening, also, to independent voters. So I think that's what people hope they see.

You know, we have unconventional Republican candidates this time, a former mayor of New York, a former governor of Massachusetts. These are not people -- these are not candidates who are the most natural fit with the Republican base.

GWEN IFILL: Now, you just mentioned the two frontrunners, Giuliani and Romney, both from the Northeast. Obviously, that's not where Fred Thompson comes from. Does that help him? And are there states in particular that he can target because of his southern roots?

SUSAN PAGE: An enormous help for him to have that comfort in the South. Of course, he's from Tennessee. When we look at the early polling in the early states, in South Carolina, he's a very close second to Rudy Giuliani. South Carolina has an early contest. It's one in which we think Thompson might very well do well.

Florida, too, also an early contest, another southern state, especially if you get into the northern part of Florida. It's a very southern-feeling kind of state. Another state where he's doing pretty well in the statewide polls might be a target for him.

Absence from candidate debates

GWEN IFILL: You know, even though it's only August, we feel like we've been covering a lot of debates already. Does it help him not to have been part of that, perhaps, that he stands apart? Does he begin to float that down to sea level the minute he stands on a stage with all the rest of the candidates?

SUSAN PAGE: It's possible that it's been an advantage that he hasn't been there. On the other hand, I think it's a disadvantage, too, because it's hard to be in a debate. You get put on the spot in a debate. You don't have much time to make your point, especially with these big fields.

So he's lacked the kind of practice in these debates that haven't gotten that high of ratings, the practice the other candidates have gotten before we get into the more serious kind of fall where we'll have debates with bigger audiences.

GWEN IFILL: There have been some early defections from the campaign already before it even begins, which raises the question, who is running his campaign? Does he have old hands, or is this a brand-new thing?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, Bill Lacy, who's a familiar figure in Republican politics, is his new campaign manager. There's been some controversy over the role his wife is going to play, how powerful she's been.

I think generally myself that voters don't care. They don't know who your campaign manager is. They don't care about that stuff. They care about you, and so I tend to take that as less serious, although if it reflects a problem in getting an organization that can hit the ground running, that could be a problem.

GWEN IFILL: Has he waited too long?

SUSAN PAGE: He's waited a long time. Now, in the past, past candidates have gotten in this late and done all right, but it's a different kind of calendar this year. We're going to have a nominee probably known by February 5th. So I don't know if he's waited too long, but I tell you, the clock is definitely ticking for Fred Thompson.

GWEN IFILL: So even if all these primaries move up to very early January, which they're now talking about today, there's still time, do you think?

SUSAN PAGE: I think there's still time, given the level of unhappiness with the Republican field. That's not to say he'll succeed, but that opening that he saw back in May, I think, is still there.

GWEN IFILL: Susan Page, USA Today, thanks a lot.

SUSAN PAGE: Thank you, Gwen.