WASHINGTON – Conservatives often ridicule Democrats for espousing the “culture of Hollywood.” But in the latest sign of Republican discontent with the field of 2008 presidential hopefuls – and in a familiar plot twist – some of those same activists are eyeing a movie actor as the party’s potential savior.
Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee who once played a White House chief of staff on the big screen and appears now as a politically savvy prosecutor on TV’s “Law & Order,” is positioning himself to answer the call – and perhaps follow the script that saw Ronald Reagan jump from Hollywood to the White House.
Thompson is scheduled to visit Capitol Hill in a few weeks, a trip designed to dovetail with efforts by three well-connected Tennessee friends to line up support for drafting him into a GOP campaign that so far has left many core Republican leaders discouraged.
One of those friends, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, has called for a Thompson candidacy in postings on his political action committee’s blog. Meanwhile, Howard Baker, another former Senate majority leader who also served as a White House chief of staff under Reagan, and Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., have been recruiting congressional endorsements.
Thompson “is in the process of getting his personal affairs in order so this has a chance of happening,” said Wamp, who spoke at length this week with Thompson.
Wamp said about 40 House members are interested in meeting with Thompson. Frist told supporters Friday that Thompson was interested in hearing their reactions.
Plenty of obstacles remain for Thompson – or any other candidate who would enter the fray – given that other presidential aspirants have secured major endorsements and hired strategists, while investing millions of dollars to build networks in the early-voting primary states.
But the effort coalescing behind Thompson underscores the extent to which leading conservatives are dissatisfied with a GOP race that has front-runner status being staked out by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a moderate on abortion and gay rights.
The leading alternatives to Giuliani have not quelled the disenchantment – top conservatives remain wary of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney suffers from his one-time moderation on a range of social issues.
Romney has disavowed those positions and stressed his commitment to conservative causes. He won a straw poll at a recent conference of conservative activists in Washington – but even after busing supporters to the event, he came out on top with just 21 percent of the vote.
“That’s not what I would call a ringing endorsement,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organized the gathering.
“People are looking at the field and saying consumers are not going to buy the product,” Keene added. “At a certain point, you can put a new one on the market and clean up.”
As GOP leaders survey both sides of the emerging presidential campaign, many express concern that only Democrats are excited about their options – energized by what is shaping up as a titanic battle featuring senators Hillary Clinton, of New York, and Barack Obama, of Illinois.
With that in mind, allies of Thompson say the folksy 64-year-old would bring a made-for-television star power to a GOP field lacking that quality.
Thompson, for his part, is proceeding cautiously, careful to avoid criticizing the current crop of contenders (he was McCain’s national co-chairman in 2000) and tamping down the notion that he appears to be angling for the job.
“One advantage you have in not, you know, having (the presidency) as lifelong ambition is that if it turns out that your calculation is wrong, it’s not the end of the world,” Thompson said in a recent interview on Fox News.
But Thompson, whose spokesman said he would not comment for this story, is taking steps that serve to accentuate the buzz around a possible candidacy.
During the Fox News interview, he staked out solidly conservative positions on key issues, opposing gay marriage, gun control and the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.
Earlier this month, he tried to secure a coveted speaking slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where several candidates appeared and the straw poll Romney won was conducted. Unaware that Thompson was mulling a White House bid, organizers told him the docket was full.
Thompson was elected to fill a partial Senate term in 1994, easily won re-election in 1996 and then decided to step down in 2002. Around the same time, he was cast as the fictitious District Attorney Arthur Branch on the “Law and Order” show.
Divorced, Thompson long was known for an active social life that included a relationship with country music star Lori Morgan. He remarried in 2002.
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