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Thompson Sheds Light, Takes Heat Just When He Had Democrats Down, Critics Say, Republican Attack Dog Failed To Go For The Throat

Marc Lacey Los Angeles Times

After months of putting others on the defensive, Fred Thompson, chairman of the Senate committee probing campaign fund-raising abuses, suddenly has found the tables turned.

The Tennessee Republican has come under blistering attack from within his own party, charged with lack of zeal in pursuing the Democratic political money scandal, and lack of judgment in recently calling a halt to hearings that were finally landing some blows.

Even Thompson’s hires are catching flak: Chief counsel Michael Madigan, who earned the nickname “Mad Dog” for his aggressive style as a Watergate investigator, is now dismissed by some detractors as “Poodle.”

The bashing could be dismissed if it came solely from conservative activists such as Larry Klayman, who issued a wanted poster last week with Thompson’s name at the top. Or if it existed exclusively on the pages of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine that asked this week: “Has Fred Thompson Blown It?” (Yes, the article answered.)

But the questions about Thompson’s performance go beyond the pundits to the senator’s colleagues, including the man who gave Thompson the reins to the investigation in the first place - Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.

Lott has muted his public criticism. Behind the scenes, however, GOP leadership aides have made clear that Lott is frustrated with Thompson’s handling of the probe. “These two guys are just not clicking,” said one aide. “Thompson is giving Lott headaches - no, make that ulcers.”

Thompson’s camp is returning fire, saying Lott, frustrated that Thompson is not running a partisan witch hunt, has been trying to undercut the investigation for months. They also blame Lott for negotiating the deal that set an end-of-the-year cutoff date for the inquiry.

“He basically wanted Thompson to be his hatchet boy and chase down the Democrats and the president,” one aide said of Lott.

The broadsides mark a dramatic turnaround for Thompson, who was selected to head the inquiry because of an image that combined do-gooder with a dose of star appeal. But Thompson’s support for campaign finance reform is now being used against him.

What Thompson brought to the hearings from the start was an above-the-fray manner that allowed Republican leaders to deflect criticism that the investigation was merely a smear campaign against Democrats. Now that same approach is considered a liability.

The hearing’s revival is set to begin Tuesday, when Thompson will call former Deputy White House Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, the highest-ranking witness to date and one who brings the controversy to the Oval Office. Republicans also may look into the allegations of fund-raising improprieties involving the Teamsters union and the Democratic National Committee.

After that attention-getting opening, some aides say the hearings may continue on and off until Dec. 31. Others suspect that the hearings’ heyday has passed and that next week will effectively mark a shift to the House, which will launch its own fund-raising hearings Wednesday.

Thompson’s detractors say he is to blame for missteps that have dulled the hearings’ impact.

Drawing particular criticism is Thompson’s recent decision to shift the focus from abuses committed during the 1996 presidential campaign to reforming the system.

“That’s not what he’s supposed to be doing,” Lott told a reporter.

Republicans also are dissatisfied with Thompson’s attempts to make the probe bipartisan, which resulted in one of their own, former Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour, being grilled about his dealings with foreign money. Democrats are eager to haul Barbour, who is being investigated by a federal grand jury, before the committee again, a notion that gives Republicans heartburn.

“I’ve never seen an operation where you saw such incompetence and arrogance combined,” one Republican aide grumbled of Thompson’s shop. “The only head they have is Haley’s.”

Some have been more vocal than others in their attacks on Thompson, who is one of only a few Republicans eager to revamp the role of money in politics and wipe out the unlimited “soft money” contributions that are at the heart of the fund-raising controversy.

Other GOP staffers tar Thompson, first elected to the Senate in 1994, as a disloyal free spirit who has seized on the hearings as an opportunity to enhance his own political ambitions. They point out that Thompson left Washington more than once during the investigation to strut his stuff with other GOP presidential hopefuls, most recently at last weekend’s gathering of California Republicans in Anaheim.

Thompson aides say their man is too focused on investigating to pay attention to his own political future. They accuse Lott, also a GOP presidential hopeful, of “sheer jealousy” over all the media attention Thompson has garnered.

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