Thompson ready to test ‘08 waters at state GOP gala

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Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson will be coming to Virginia as part of an effort to drum up support among conservative voters.

The “Law & Order” star, who is said to be “testing the waters” for a 2008 presidential run, will be the keynote speaker at the Republican Party of Virginia’s 2007 Commonwealth Gala Saturday in Richmond.

His attendance will be the latest high-profile appearance orchestrated by Ed Gillespie, state party chairman and former Republican National Committee chairman who worked with Mr. Thompson in 2005 on the confirmation of Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Mr. Thompson would likely appeal to conservative voters thus far dissatisfied with Republican front-runners Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former New York mayor; Arizona Sen. John McCain; and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“If the election was tomorrow, and conservatives had to go to the polls and vote for one of these three leading guys, then a lot of conservatives would probably stay home,” said state Delegate Jeffrey M. Frederick, Prince William Republican. “The three leading candidates in the race right now all have problems with the conservative base — significant problems — and I think that conservatives nationally are looking for a bona fide conservative candidate. Someone who is not a fringe candidate either, but one that actually can win.”

Many Virginia conservatives argue that Republicans lost in last year’s elections because they forgot conservative principles, particularly limited government. And now President Bush is being criticized for pushing an immigration proposal that conservatives say awards amnesty to illegal aliens.

Conservatives “are very unhappy with the state of the party,”said Craig Shirley, an Alexandria-based Republican strategist.

Mr. Bush and his wife, Laura, this month helped the state party raise about $630,000 at a gathering in Goochland County.

The party plans on putting much of the money into tight races in this fall’s elections, when all 140 General Assembly seats will be up for grabs and Republicans will work to keep control of the state House and Senate.

A Thompson candidacy is intriguing to Virginia voters looking for a conservative like Ronald Reagan, said state Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, Prince William Republican.

“As I go door to door, I am surprised with how many people have [Mr. Thompson] on their mind, which tells me that many in the base are still looking” for the right candidate, he said. “People are looking for someone who is consistent across the board. And when you look at some of the candidates, I think they may have good leadership skills, but are inconsistent on the issues, or they are consistent on the issues, but don’t have good leadership skills.”

Mr. Thompson, who served in the Senate from 1994 to 2003, has placed third or higher in some national polls without even entering the race.

“It’s very interesting how he has come out of nowhere in relatively few weeks, but it also tells you about the yawning chasm inside the Republican Party that is thirsting for a real conservative leader,” Mr. Shirley said.

Some leading Christian conservatives have already told The Washington Times they would rally behind Mr. Thompson.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a prominent Roman Catholic social conservative said Mr. Giuliani, Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney fall short of conservative expectations, but Mr. Thompson is “right on the issues” such as abortion and “better than all of the above.”

Charles Dunn of Regent University in Virginia Beach, said breaking into the Republican presidential primary field would be a “tall order” for Mr. Thompson, but he would likely do well in Virginia.

“He will appeal to the Southern Republican,” Mr. Dunn said. “He will appeal to evangelical Christians, and he will appeal to social conservatives. Those three groups pretty much dominate Republican Party politics in this state.”

Still, Mr. Thompson will need to tell people where he stands on other issues — including campaign-finance reform — and assure Virginia conservatives that he is more committed to tenets of limited government than the other top-tier Republican contenders are.

“I’m not sure that reading from a Hollywood script is the way to motivate conservatives,” Mr. Lingamfelter said. Conservatives are “looking for somebody who reflects Reagan values but also has the leaderships skills and commitment to conservative principles needed to actually lead the country.”

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