COLUMBIA, S.C. — After three days of saying that Osama bin Laden should be captured and killed, Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson added the caveat Monday that the Al Qaeda leader should also get "due process."
Thompson's comment on Bin Laden came as he attempted to quell the flap set off by a remark he made last week as he launched his candidacy in Iowa.
On Friday outside Sioux City, shortly after the release of a new videotape of the terrorist leader, Thompson said that Bin Laden was "more of a symbolism than he is anything else" and that there were greater concerns in fighting terrorism.
The ensuing criticism led Thompson to toughen his language: Bin Laden, he said, "ought to be captured and killed."
But Monday in South Carolina, Thompson told reporters on his campaign bus that he wasn't suggesting Bin Laden should be killed as soon as he was caught.
"No, no, no, we've got due process to go through," the Associated Press quoted him as saying. "I'm not suggesting those things happen simultaneously."
The suggestion that Bin Laden's rights deserve protection struck a relatively moderate note at a time when the former Tennessee senator is trying to define himself as the most conservative of his party's major White House contenders.
Todd Harris, his communications director, offered a clarification of Thompson's view of Bin Laden on Monday afternoon.
"Before he's killed, we need to pump him for every ounce of information about Al Qaeda that we can possibly get," Harris said. Anyone who does not understand the need to interrogate Bin Laden, he said, "doesn't understand the long-term fight against terror."
The series of comments underscored the challenge that Thompson faces in establishing a steady bearing under the rigors of a presidential race.
The former "Law & Order" actor announced his candidacy Wednesday.
Thompson's remark two days later on Bin Laden's "symbolism" triggered a sharp response from Democratic presidential contender John Edwards, who accused him of failing to grasp the importance of capturing the Al Qaeda leader.
"Fred Thompson should know better," the former North Carolina senator said.
On Sunday, on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," the host played a clip of the Thompson remark for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who quickly said he disagreed with his opponent.
In the 2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean faced similar troubles for saying that people should not "prejudge" Bin Laden before a jury trial.
Under withering attacks from his Democratic rivals, Dean released a statement saying that Bin Laden was "exactly the kind of case that the death penalty is meant for."