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In private meetings, Mr. Thompson has managed to win over some skeptics say “con” top social and religious conservatives while also winning support from Republicans more concerned about economic and fiscal issues.

“I haven’t been conned by anybody I’m keeping my powder dry,” says Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle forum, a grass-roots conservative lobby.

Many conservative critics have focused on Mr. Thompson“s abortion stance in the wake of newspaper reports that he lobbied for a pro-choice group in 1991, but Mr. Bopp says that McCain-Feingold and Mr. Thompson’s chairmanship of a Senate probe of the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election campaign are greater vulnerabilities.

Mr. Thompson’s Governmental Affairs Committee hearings were convened in 1997 to investigate foreign contributions to the Democratic campaign that were clearly illegal under federal law. The hearings instead ended up treating legal Republican donations as part of a bipartisan scandal, a perception eventually used to justify the 2002 law best known by the name of its Senate sponsors, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat

“He subpoenaed a number of conservative issue organizations he wanted to be even-handed after issuing subpoenas to a number of left-leaning groups and unions,” said elections-law attroney Cleta Mitchell, who advises conservative clients.

“He shouldn’t have subpoenaed any of the citizens groups in the first place,” she said. “He should have concentrated on the illegal activities of the Clinton administration and the Democratic National Committee in the 1996 election. … Instead, Thompson let the Democrats on his committee run roughshod over him and the only thing that came out of the entire effort was the record the Supreme Court used to validate McCain-Feingold.”

Mr. Thompson’s vulnerability to charges of campaign-finance hypocrisy was highlighted over the weekend, when ABC News ran an online “analysis” accusing the Republican of taking advantage of “loopholes” in federal law to avoid reporting his fundraising amounts, as other candidates were required to do by midnight Sunday.