Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson is now hovering near the top of the heap of Republican presidential hopefuls in most polls, but critics say he will begin a precipitous descent when more primary voters learn more about his record.
"I think Thompson already has peaked, especially because people are being reminded of his deep involvement in supporting McCain-Feingold," said James Bopp Jr., a Republican lawyer who specializes in campaign and election law.
"His McCain-Feingold problem is worse than just the law, said Mr. Bopp, a supporter of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Mr. Thompson also signed a subpoena that cost the Republican National Committee millions of dollars to comply with, and his name is on an amicus brief defending the 2002 campaign-finance law, Mr. Bopp said.
Despite such criticism and despite the semi-official status of his candidacy Mr. Thompson now leads former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani by 25 percent to 24 percent nationally in the latest Rasmussen poll of likely Republican primary voters.
"He's not even an announced candidate and is leading in some early state primaries," said Republican political consultant Scott Reed, former Bob Dole presidential campaign manager. "He is filling a void in this race with social and economic conservatives."
The Republican primary battle will test the appeal of Mr. Thompson a veteran actor best known for his recently-ended role as a prosecutor on the TV series "Law & Order."
"It is fair to expect that perceptions of Thompson will change once he enters the rough and tumble of the campaign," Mr. Rasmussen said. "The next three months will probably give us a very clear indication of whether Thompson will sink or swim."
While many conservative movement leaders are taking a wait-and-see stance on his candidacy, Mr. Thompson has persuaded others that he is a true-blue supporter of limited government.
"Fred Thompson has, over his career, much better defined federalism than almost anybody else in Washington," said Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth. "He is one of very people voting against feel-good popular legislation that was not the proper domain of the federal government."
Unlike some other limited-government conservatives, Mr. Thompson favors amending the U.S. Constitution to outlaw same-sex "marriage a position that earns him support from Christian conservatives.
Mr. Thompson has "said that on something like the marriage issue he understands you can't have 50 different definitions of marriage, so he supports a constitutional amendment," said Gary Bauer, a former Reagan administration official who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 on a traditional-values platform.
"So to me, Thompson displays a conservative instinct coupled with a real analytical mind that allows him to look at a variety of different approaches, said Mr. Bauer, describing support for the marriage amendment as a "rare" exception to Mr. Thompson's federalism.
Some conservative leaders say Mr. Thompson's wife, Jeri Kehn Thompson, a former Republican operative, is a crucial asset articulating views on conservative issues and philosophy far better than he can.
Conservative skeptics say Mr. Thompson's supporters have imagined him to be the second coming of Ronald Reagan. "They have imbued him with the characteristics of 'Mr. Right,' " said Mr. Bopp.
For others, Mr. Thompson is more like a blind date. "The recommendations are strong and the anticipation is high but you may end up parting with a handshake instead of a kiss," said Merrill Matthews, a Dallas-based conservative activist.
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.