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Thompson takes his new show on the trail in Iowa

The newest Republican presidential hopeful plays his Southern image up and his history as a lobbyist down.

September 07, 2007|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA — No more winks. No more hints. No more "testing the waters."

On his first day as a full-fledged candidate for the White House, Fred Thompson finally climbed aboard a mustard-color coach Thursday and set off across Iowa, asking Republicans for support.

The former Tennessee senator kept a light schedule: two campaign rallies, a handful of TV interviews and a pep talk to supporters at house parties around the nation.

Sticking to a tightly scripted message, Thompson emphasized traditional conservative themes on national defense and fiscal discipline.

"I am determined that we make the decisions that will leave us a stronger nation, a more prosperous nation and a more united nation, and that's why I'm running for president of the United States," he told 200 cheering Iowans at his kickoff rally in Des Moines.

Accompanying the part-time actor and former senator were his wife, Jeri, 40; their 3-year-old daughter, Hayden, sporting red ribbons on her ponytails; and their infant son, Sammy, in his mother's arms. Thompson's two grown sons from a previous marriage were not there.

Thompson, 65, summed up his biography as a common "American story." He described himself as having been "a kid of modest means in a small town, without a lot of resources or even a whole lot of ambition."

He recalled working the graveyard shift at a bicycle factory, but also dining with foreign leaders in more recent years as a politician and television star.

Notably absent from the Alabama native's sketch of his background was his three-decade history as a Washington lobbyist, a favorite topic of opponents.

Playing up the outsider's image that served him well in his two Senate campaigns, Thompson attacked unnamed politicians in the nation's capital, saying they had been "busy spending the next generation's money."

With a wave of baby boomers nearing old age, he said, rampant overspending threatens "ruination" of the economy as politicians "kick the can down the road until, presumably, their own retirement."

"My friends, we need to deliver a message to Washington that we're better than that," he said. "And you can start delivering that message by electing a president who will blow the whistle on this lack of responsibility. And I'm the guy who will do that."

"Go, Fred, go!" supporters hollered.

The crowd was relatively thin for the national launch of a celebrity's bid for the White House. "Middle of the workday," explained Robert Haus, Thompson's Iowa campaign director.

But that did not stop Thompson from declaring: "Wow. This is a wonderful turnout."

Thompson's advisors hope that Republicans will see him as the most genuine conservative in the race. Neither of his top GOP rivals, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, has consolidated conservative support -- thanks, in part, to both men's history of taking moderate stands on social issues.

At his Iowa stops, Thompson vowed to respect "the sanctity of life," name judges who interpret law rather than reshape it to their liking, and tighten border security,

In Council Bluffs, he stood on a platform outside his bus and told about 200 people at a town square war memorial that "basic rights come from God, not from government." He also told the crowd that while in college, he had drawn inspiration from the writings of Barry Goldwater, the conservative Arizona senator who ran for president in 1964.

Still, the anti-tax group Club for Growth offered a reminder of Thompson's challenge in establishing his conservative credentials. It released a report on his Senate fiscal record that gave him high marks overall, but with reservations.

"His fondness for Tennessee pork aside, Thompson consistently voted against increased spending and new government projects -- at times, one of only a handful of senators to do so," said Pat Toomey, the group's president.

Toomey faulted Thompson, a lawyer, for resisting efforts to curb the size of legal judgments and for backing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which many conservatives see as an infringement of free speech.

Thompson's Iowa swing continues today and Saturday with stops in Sioux City, Mason City, Cedar Rapids and Davenport, followed by two days of campaigning in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

In his opening speech at the rally in Des Moines, Thompson stood in suit and tie behind a lectern with his larger-than-life image projected on jumbo video screens to his left and right. He looked down so often that the crowd, and television viewers, saw as much of his bald crown as they saw of his face.

At both campaign stops, Thompson sought to charm the crowds with his folksy Southern manner. A man in Council Bluffs asked him which federal agency he would disband. "How long you got?" Thompson deadpanned. And in a joke about his improbable role as a New York district attorney on NBC's "Law & Order," he said: "My mama always wondered why the rest of them talked funny. I was the only one who didn't talk funny."

Like other Republicans running to succeed President Bush, Thompson avoided any embrace of the unpopular incumbent. But he did voice support for the Iraq war, saying the U.S. must "do whatever is necessary to prevail" as part of a larger struggle against terrorism.

"My friends," he told the crowd in Des Moines, "if we show weakness and division, we will pay a heavy price for it in the future."

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