DES MOINES — Fred Thompson, the all-but-declared presidential hopeful, made his Iowa debut Friday before a ready-made crowd at the state fair, cradling a small pig, marveling at a cow made of butter and ducking any serious talk of issues.
The former Tennessee senator, who is expected to formally announce his candidacy for the Republican nomination in a few weeks, scattered hints as if they were candy corn.
"If things play out the way I've got in mind, we'll be seeing a lot more of each other," Thompson told about 300 supporters and passersby gathered just off the midway. "Keep your powder dry. I think we can do something good for America."
Later, as Thompson strolled the fairgrounds amid a swarm of TV cameras and well-wishers, a man wielding a turkey leg hollered: "When are you going announce, sir?"
"It won't be long," Thompson called back over his shoulder.
For the moment, his candidacy resides in a blessed state, suspended between imagination and the realities of running, which will require more than the vague statements -- he believes Washington is a mess, favors gun owner rights and opposes abortion, higher taxes and people running down America -- that Thompson offered in a 15-minute speech at the fair's "soapbox" forum.
Later, in a question-and-answer session with reporters, the candidate-in-waiting declined to elaborate on his remarks.
Whom did he have in mind when he suggested there were "a bunch of people" in Washington in over their heads? "I don't want to call out names . . . but it's a governmentwide problem."
How would he win the war in Iraq, by adding or withdrawing troops? "The least we can do. . . is to wait and see what the generals have to say" in a progress report due in September.
When he talks about entitlement reform without offering specifics, isn't he just paying lip service to the problem? "Let's see if we can get a little lip service, first, from some of the other people who are running for president."
With that, Thompson, 64, got down to the day's most important business: shaking hands, signing autographs and appearing in the kind of down-home settings that make for congenial news coverage.
"They've been waiting for me to say something interesting, and it hasn't happened yet," Thompson joked to Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the state's senior Republican lawmaker, as his media entourage followed the pair to a pen housing Big Red, declared the world's biggest boar at 1,203 pounds.
The Iowa State Fair is an institution, not just here, but across the Midwest. The 10-day event is expected to draw more than 1 million visitors, including the major presidential candidates from both major parties, most of whom have been visiting the state frequently over the last several months.
Casually dressed in a blue polo shirt, tan slacks, brown loafers (and, somewhat incongruously, a tank watch from Cartier), Thompson spent nearly two hours stumping.
He wandered by displays of produce, livestock (real and sculpted) and all manner of food on a stick -- pickles, deep-fried Twinkies, meatballs, bologna, pork chops and fried potatoes -- and encountered nary a discouraging word. Even a man in a yellow T-shirt touting Republican Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and a Thompson rival, hoisted a cup of soda and called out, "Hey, Senator!"
But not all were impressed. Diane Herteen rushed up to take Thompson's photo, but only because she recognized him from his role as Dist. Atty. Arthur Branch on NBC-TV's "Law & Order." "I'm a Democrat," said Herteen, who clutched a brochure promoting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for president.
"He's thinner than I expected," she added. "On TV he looks a lot bulkier."
Jeff Marquis, of Costa Mesa, visiting family in Des Moines, followed Thompson for a part of his tour. "I think he's real," Marquis said. "He doesn't have any hidden agenda."
Marquis said he was glad Thompson was taking his time before formally entering the race. "I think the media picks on a lot of people and puts their spin on it long before the candidates are actually able to talk about their deal," he said. "So I think it's kind of nice he's waiting."
The next debate
The Democratic presidential candidates will participate in a forum at Drake University in Des Moines on Sunday morning. The forum will be broadcast as a special edition of ABC-TV's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" at 8 a.m.