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Gop Puts Telegenic Face On Fund-Raising Probe

He’s 6-foot-6, telegenic and smooth. He made movies after surfacing as Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. It’s no wonder GOP leaders turned to Sen. Fred Thompson to head the investigation of campaign fund-raising shenanigans.

A decade after participating in the investigation that led to President Richard M. Nixon’s downfall, Thompson played himself in a movie, “Marie.”

Thompson subsequently mixed his legal career with appearances in television shows and 18 Hollywood films, including “In the Line of Fire,” “Die Hard II,” “Barbarians at the Gate,” “Cape Fear” and “The Hunt for Red October.” He generally played gruff authority figures.

When he returned to Washington in 1994 as the new senator from Tennessee, the Senate’s Republican leadership wasted no time taking advantage of Thompson’s already-familiar face.

Thompson had been in office only two weeks when he gave the televised GOP response to President Clinton’s nationally broadcast speech supporting middle-class tax cuts. And after just two years in Congress, his name is being mentioned as a possible GOP presidential nominee in 2000.

“It’s not something that’s on our agenda,” said Paul Clark, a Thompson spokesman. “It’s mostly stuff the press has talked about. We’re not encouraging it by any means.”

The political fortunes of the 54-year-old divorced father of three grown children could depend on how he handles the probe of alleged campaign finance improprieties as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

One person who thinks Thompson will do splendidly is Sam Dash, the Watergate committee’s chief Democratic counsel.

“I am delighted he ran for public office,” Dash said. “He’s not just a partisan. He has an overall view of what is good for America. I have a lot of confidence in his candor and integrity.”

In politics, Thompson floated to easy Senate wins in 1994, to serve out the unexpired term of Vice President Al Gore, and again in 1996. He was helped first by the 1994 Republican tide across America, then last year by incumbency and an easygoing manner. He traveled the state in his red pickup truck, often appearing in shirt-sleeves, tieless.

“He’s very relaxed, laid-back, low-key,” said M. Lee Smith, publisher of the weekly political newsletter “The Tennessee Journal.”

Politically, Thompson is “a conservative, very conservative in some respects, but he’s also a person of reason,” said Smith. “He’s not an ideologue to the point of turning off voters who might disagree with him on a number of issues.”

Thompson is a fiscal conservative, but has tried to walk a middle ground on abortion.

Other problems could surface later, said political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer at Vanderbilt University. Thompson “has not yet undergone the level of public scrutiny that people who become presidential nomination contenders get.”

Then there’s his personal life. Although his divorce apparently was amicable, and his ex-wife attended some campaign functions, Thompson is single and not long ago dated country singer Lorrie Morgan.

“It’s a question of whether you can do the Republican family values number as easily,” he said.

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