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Well, ya got trouble, Fred, right here in River City

December 23, 2007|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

MASON CITY, IOWA — Janice Easley's fury over illegal immigration boiled over Saturday as she confronted Republican presidential hopeful Fred Thompson at the Music Man Square museum.

She said she recalled a film about Mexicans who wanted to take over California and New Mexico. Calling illegal immigrants a taxpayer burden, she wondered whether Americans could march in the streets of Mexico and demand welfare. When Iowans call up the power company, she said, "everything is in Spanish; it's sickening."

"You are so, so right," Thompson responded. English should be the national language, he told the retiree, and immigrants bear some of the blame for the home-loan crisis. "A lot of them couldn't communicate with the people they were getting the mortgage from," he said.

So it went at the first -- and last -- stop of the day on Thompson's Clear Conservative Choice bus tour. Thompson scratched the rest of the day's events to avert any chance of snow delaying his return home to a Washington suburb for Christmas, taking a gamble that the shortened workday would not spark new questions about his energy quotient.

His effort to show toughness on illegal immigration -- a top issue for many Iowa Republicans -- was part of Thompson's push to prove he is the purest conservative in the race. And for Thompson, Iowa now is everything.

The former Tennessee senator has skidded in state and national polls for months. Staff turmoil has kept his campaign off balance. Scathing reviews from pundits, late-night comics and conservative luminaries accelerated his slide. ("Fred Thompson: Lazy as charged," read a column headline last week on Politico.com.) His plummet to asterisk status in New Hampshire has driven Thompson to abandon the marquee primary.

That state of affairs has made it hard for Thompson to raise money. One of his main Iowa rivals, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has vastly outspent him.

So Thompson set out last week from Dubuque on a low-budget two-week bus tour of Iowa in hopes of mounting a comeback in time for the Jan. 3 caucuses.

That, in turn, he hopes, will restore what was once his solid standing in South Carolina, another culturally conservative state where his Southern manner could play well -- as it has in Iowa with Republicans like Roger Everett, 54, administrator of the Community Christian School in Fort Dodge.

"He has a real folksy, down-home kind of feeling," Everett said after watching Thompson speak Friday night a few blocks from the school.

With hostilities mounting between Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Iowa's Republican front-runner in polls, Thompson hopes each will tear the other down enough to clear the way for him to emerge as the conservative favorite.

In Mason City, he told the audience of several dozen that the 2008 election would come down to beating back attacks on conservative principles.

Those principles are "under assault from a left-wing, big-government, high-taxing, weak-on-national-defense Democratic Party that's just salivating now to get back the reins of power so that they can take us down the road of a welfare state, where the government turns out to be not much more than an agency to transfer money from one group of folks to another," he said.

The 65-year-old's grandfatherly style, however, remains a challenge.

"I don't think he's got the fire," said Republican Earlene Nordstrom, a retired dry cleaner from Fort Dodge who reported admiring Thompson but leaning toward Romney.

At the Music Man Square museum and community center -- where 76 trombones are displayed to commemorate hometown boy Meredith Willson's Broadway musical -- Thompson's speech slowed to a crawl after he warned that America was "one successful terrorist plot away from nuclear disaster."

"I've had the opportunity to travel around the world, meet with foreign leaders, both friends and enemies, in places like China and Russia and Afghanistan," he said. He named more places in a soft voice, his clip-on microphone broadcasting loud breaths as he paused after each one: "South America." "Chile." "Ecuador." "Panama." He finished by mentioning Russia a second time.

As for the frequent commentary on his vitality, Thompson addressed it unprompted in his Mason City speech. He recalled his first race for Senate in 1994, which he won: "Some of the commentators were saying about me then what they're saying about me now: 'He's a little too laid-back,' 'We're not sure he's personally ambitious enough' and things like that. Well, stay tuned, boys. Stay tuned."

Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen wrote last week that Thompson might exceed expectations in Iowa, noting his endorsement by U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

"It sends a powerful signal," he wrote, "from one of Iowa's most conservative leaders to others on the right around the state: We've now got a horse we can ride."

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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