Former 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 [the] McCain-Feingold [campaign-finance law]," 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 of Tennessee 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 semiofficial status of his candidacy — Mr. Thompson now leads former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani 24 percent to 23 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 convinced others that he is a 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."
His support for amending the U.S. Constitution to outlaw same-sex "marriage" earns Mr. Thompson 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.
Skeptics say Mr. Thompson's supporters have imagined him to be the second coming of Ronald Reagan — though he may be 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 several top conservatives. Others, however, remain unconvinced. Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, says, "I'm keeping my powder dry."
Mr. Thompson's support of McCain-Feingold and his chairmanship of a Senate probe of the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election campaign are vulnerabilities, Mr. Bopp said.
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. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat.
"He should have concentrated on the illegal activities of the Clinton administration and the Democratic National Committee in the 1996 election," said elections-law lawyer Cleta Mitchell, who advises conservative clients. "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."