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Thompson lets loose a Southern swagger in campaign stops

September 12, 2007|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

NASHUA, N.H. — On the first trip of his campaign for president, Fred Thompson told a crowd here this week that as a young lawyer, he had prosecuted bank robbers and bootleggers.

"I had to kind of apologize to my granddaddy about prosecuting those moonshiners," the former Republican senator from Tennessee said with a twang.

"We don't have moonshiners in New Hampshire," Mayor Bernie Streeter told him.

Maybe not. But Thompson's talk about moonshine and his granddaddy captured the Southern informality at the core of his personality. And if his travels since announcing his candidacy have made one thing clear, it is this: Personality is what his White House run is all about.

"Buy this guy a round!" Thompson hollered to scores of beer-swilling New England Patriots fans at P.J. O'Sullivan's bar in Manchester on Sunday after singing "Happy Birthday" to 47-year-old Scott Lavalley.

Whether he plays well outside the South remains to be seen. But lackluster crowds at Thompson's rallies offered one sign of the limitations of his appeal: Only a few dozen showed up on a rainy day in Nashua, and barely 100 under sunny skies in Davenport, Iowa.

As the only Southerner in the top tier of Republicans in the race, Thompson, 65, offers a sharp contrast to former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

He's a Johnny Cash fan who likes to quote 19th century Tennessee frontiersman David Crockett. His idea of lunch is "a regular burger with everything on it -- including onions, if you got raw onions."

Thompson's manner of speaking stands out. In tough times, he says, Americans "hitch up our britches." The U.S. must not leave Iraq "with our tail between our legs." When it comes to illegal immigration, beware of politicians "trying to sell the same horse twice" -- an allusion to an amnesty provision passed in the 1980s and the current push to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. As for schools, he says, let "local mamas and daddies" keep control.

Thompson's strategists say the constant reminders of his small-town roots in Alabama, where he was born, and Tennessee, where he was raised and began his legal career, are central to his candidacy.

"The way he delivers his message is in language at a pace, and at a cadence, that strikes a chord, and I think that's crucial," said Rich Galen, a senior advisor.

An actor as well as a politician, Thompson has become familiar to millions during the last 22 years in film and television roles as president, prosecutor, rear admiral and CIA director, among others. "Whenever they were looking for someone who wasn't good-looking and sort of cheap, they'd call me," he told the crowd in South Carolina.

When actors run for public office, the lines between fiction and reality often blur. Thompson is no exception. "I know nothing about him, except he was on 'Law & Order,' " said Kelly O'Brien, 39, a Manchester woman sipping beer at P.J. O'Sullivan's.

In recounting his life story at campaign stops, Thompson's omissions have been noteworthy.

In Nashua, he said his service as Republican minority counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee in 1974 taught him what happens "when too much power gets into too few people's hands." Unmentioned was the fact that he leaked details on the investigation to the Nixon White House.

Turning to his first Senate race in 1994, he said, he "decided that I'd put aside the law practice, and I'd put aside the movie business. . . . I got in my truck, and we went across the state of Tennessee." The detail he left out: Thompson did not own the red Chevy pickup truck that came to symbolize his regular-guy touch; his campaign leased it for $500 a month to enhance his image.

Portraying himself during this campaign swing as a Washington outsider, Thompson said he hammered "politicians" for catering to special interest groups "that give the most money, and the ones that put the most pressure."

"You see that with the Democratic Party marching themselves off a left-wing cliff with this war situation," he said in South Carolina.

What he did not share was that he had worked as a Washington lobbyist since the mid-1970s. He took a break from lobbying during his own Senate tenure from 1994 to 2003.

On substance, Thompson is following the traditional path for a conservative Republican. He speaks out against abortion, gun control and same-sex marriage. He praises President Bush's Supreme Court appointments, reminding crowds that he helped the White House guide Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to Senate confirmation.

In Greenville, S.C., where the crowd of 300 was his biggest of the week, Thompson won a standing ovation when he said Americans had shed more blood for other people's liberty than all other nations "in the history of the world."

But Thompson's emphasis is his biography, and he salts it with one-liners. The balding 6-foot-5 former football player jokes that he wrote the script for a short video on his life that plays just before he lopes on stage.

His first laugh line: "I want to say to all you fellas with a full head of hair: Enjoy it while you can."

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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