Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Former Sen. Fred Thompson’s interest in the 2008 presidential race is generating enthusiasm among many Republicans, despite some conservative criticism of the “Law & Order” star’s record.

“He’s the biggest buzz in the state,” said Iowa Republican Party Executive Director Chuck Laudner. “A lot of our people want to see him come here. They see him with star power equivalent to [former New York Mayor] Rudy Giuliani, but he’s conservative.”

In Dallas, conservative policy analyst Merrill Matthews said Mr. Thompson’s name is on the lips of just about every conservative with whom he talks.

“I get the sense they are saying, ‘I really don’t like the rest of the Republican field for 2008, but I’m kind of excited about Fred Thompson,’ ” Mr. Matthews said. “I find the same feeling in myself, but I’m not entirely sure why.”

Mr. Thompson, of Tennessee, catapulted into the top tier of Republican presidential nomination hopefuls on the basis of a single TV interview a month ago. He told Fox News’ Chris Wallace that he was “giving some thought” to running.

Two weeks later, in the first Gallup Poll to include his name, Mr. Thompson received 12 percent support, with Mr. Giuliani at 31 percent, down from 44 percent in the previous Gallup survey, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 3 percent, down from 8 percent in the early poll.

Mr. Thompson, 64, who plays New York District Attorney Arthur Branch on NBC’s long-running “Law & Order” TV series, got another major boost when columnist Robert Novak wrote that Mr. Thompson was filling the “conservative void” in the Republican field. That field has been led by Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker Jr., a mentor to Mr. Thompson, said he is urging his fellow Tennessee Republican to seek the nomination.

Yet conservative skeptics wonder whether Mr. Thompson would be any more committed to principles of limited government than would the other top-tier Republican contenders, or the current president, who has disappointed many supporters in the conservative movement.

Many Republicans intrigued by Mr. Thompson say they remember almost nothing about his eight years in the Senate. Conservative groups give his record high ratings, despite deviations such as his support of the 2002 campaign-finance law chiefly backed in the Republican Party by Mr. McCain.

National Taxpayers Union President John Berthoud said his group gave Mr. Thompson’s record an A rating on tax and spending issues for seven of his eight years in the Senate and a B-plus for the other year.

“On the spending side of the ledger, the guy’s a prince,” Mr. Berthoud said. “But he’s a lawyer and not in the right place on tort reform. And we strongly disagree with Thompson and his friend John McCain on campaign-finance reform because it violates the First Amendment. That is a huge point of disagreement we have with them.”

Free Congress Foundation President Paul M. Weyrich said Mr. Thompson “would have the chance to unite both the economic and social conservative wings of the party.”

Mr. Weyrich said he preferred Mr. Thompson despite disappointment with the Tennessean’s performance as chairman of a Senate investigation into the so-called “Chinagate” scandal involving illegal foreign contributions to 1996 Democratic Party campaigns.

“He let us down with Chinagate, but he’s still better than any of the rest of the current front-runners,” Mr. Weyrich said.

He said Mr. Thompson will need to make a decision on the 2008 race soon.

“Thompson has a good economic and social issues voting record,” Mr. Weyrich said. “He is tough on foreign policy, saying we have not gone far enough in executing terrorists. If he gets in [the presidential race] in a relatively short time frame, he would have pretty good chance.”

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