DURHAM, N.H. – After months of testing the waters, former Sen. Fred Thompson, of Tennessee, jumped into the race for the Republican presidential nomination on late-night television Wednesday, as his eight rivals clashed here in a debate that featured sharp exchanges over Iraq and immigration.
Thompson used an appearance on NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” to kick off his campaign. “I’m running for president of the United States,” Thompson told Leno during the show’s taping early Wednesday evening.
He prepared to follow that up at midnight with a longer video on his campaign Web site outlining his reasons for running, citing threats to national security and the economy and the need to change Washington. “I know that reform is possible in Washington because I have seen it done,” he said. “I do not accept it as a fact of life beyond our power to change that the federal government must go on expanding more, taxing more and spending more forever.”
Thompson’s Republican rivals appeared unbowed by his entry and used their forum to take potshots at him for skipping the debate. “Maybe we’re up past his bedtime,” Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, quipped. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani joked: “I think Fred is a really, really good man. I think he’s done a pretty good job of playing my part on ‘Law & Order.’ “
Asked by Leno why he wasn’t in New Hampshire, Thompson said, “I’ll do my share, but I don’t think it’s a very enlightening forum, to tell you the truth.”
Thompson’s long-awaited announcement brings a potentially formidable candidate into the Republican race. His Southern roots, conservative message and celebrity appeal from films and television’s “Law & Order” already have pushed him into second place in most national polls, behind Giuliani.
But Thompson’s late start leaves him well behind his rivals in organizing his campaign in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, where former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has used television ads to build a lead in the polls, and in South Carolina and Florida, where Giuliani is ahead.
Thompson’s entry could quickly alter the dynamics of a wide-open Republican nomination battle that has evolved rapidly through the course of the year. When the campaign began, McCain was seen as the likeliest candidate to claim front-runner status, but his campaign ran aground by mid-summer.
The summer belonged to Giuliani and Romney. Romney surged in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire and capped off August with a victory in the Iowa Republican straw poll – a contest Giuliani, McCain and Thompson all skipped. For Giuliani, the summer months helped change a story line that said, despite his celebrity appeal, he had little chance of becoming the Republican nominee because of his support for abortion and gay rights. Now he is seen as a credible, if conventional, threat for the nomination.
The summer also helped to establish former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee as the dark-horse candidate with the best chance of surprising one of his better-known rivals.
Even with Thompson on the other side of the continent, Wednesday’s GOP debate was among the liveliest of the year. Once past an opening question about the missing Thompson, the candidates turned on one another. Romney, Giuliani, McCain and Rep. Tom Tancredo, of Colorado, sparred over immigration. McCain chastised Romney over his reluctance to say the “surge” policy in Iraq is clearly working. Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul, of Texas, clashed over whether the United States should stay in Iraq or get out.
When Romney said he believed the troop buildup in Iraq was “apparently working,” McCain jumped him. “Governor, the surge is working. The surge is working, sir.”
“That’s just what I said,” Romney responded.
“No, not ‘apparently.’ It’s working,” McCain replied.
Moments later, Huckabee and Paul engaged in an even more heated exchange. Paul repeated his call for the United States to pull out of Iraq, to which Huckabee objected. “We bought it, and we broke it,” he said, adding that the United States must not leave without honor.