Republican Voters Intrigued by Fred Thompson

Declared Republican candidates for president met in California for their first debate this week. But many Republican voters are talking about a potential candidate who also appeared in California this week. They want to see TV star and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson enter the race.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The Republican presidential candidates' debate Thursday night featured 10 hopefuls. But some Republican voters want more. They're hoping that former senator and current "Law and Order" star Fred Thompson gets into the race.

Last night a few hundred Southern California Republicans got a preview of what a Thompson presidential campaign might look like when the might-be candidate spoke to the Lincoln Club of Orange County.

NPR's Ina Jaffe was there.

INA JAFFE: When politicians are thinking about seeking higher office, they often spend their early speeches introducing themselves to the voters.

Unidentified Man: Will you please give a warm Orange County and Lincoln Club welcome to Senator Fred Thompson.

(Soundbite of music and applause)

JAFFE: But Fred Thompson was every bit as familiar to the GOP activists in this ballroom as the "Law and Order" theme song that played as he walked to the stage. Americans may know him best as fictional New York City D.A. Arthur Branch. But in this crowd, he was just as much the real-life former senator and reliable conservative.

Last night's speech was casual, low-key and stuck to traditional broad Republican themes. For instance, Democrats who want to raise taxes.

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Former Republican Senator, Tennessee): That's their solution. And we have to defend the sound policies that have worked for us so often and so consistently in this country. You wouldn't think you'd have to make the lower tax case again. But you have to make it every day in Washington, D.C.

(Soundbite of music)

JAFFE: Then there's what America can teach other nations about freedom and prosperity.

Mr. THOMPSON: We need to promote things like the rule of law, market economies and free trade. Any country who has ever tried that has prospered. Any (unintelligible) country that hasn't has not.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: And Thompson took the long view in discussing America's role in this post-9/11 world.

Mr. THOMPSON: Hopefully, the people and the forces of civilization realize if they're fighting against the forces of nihilism and destruction and darkness, who is going to need to stand firm and stand strong and stand united if it's not the United States of America.

JAFFE: Every Lincoln Club member we spoke to had a similar reaction to Thompson's speech.

Mr. CHIP HANLON (Member, Lincoln Club of Orange County, California): For a guy who's not sure whether he's running, it sounds a lot like he's running.

JAFFE: Chip Hanlon said he's uncommitted to any candidate right now. But he understood Thompson's appeal.

Mr. HANLON: You know, having more than a few Republican friends and there are those that are a little hungry for someone who's more traditionally conservative across the board, right? So I think there's certainly an opportunity there for someone like Fred Thompson. How big is that opportunity, we'll see.

JAFFE: Two recent polls show Thompson in second place, just a few points behind frontrunner Rudolph Giuliani. And surprisingly, both polls show Thompson taking more votes away from Giuliani than from more conservative candidates, like former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney or Senator John McCain. There was no one we spoke to who didn't want Thompson to run.

Ms. KAREN LUGO(ph) (Member, Lincoln Club of Orange County, California): It would be exciting. It absolutely would.

JAFFE: Said Lincoln Club member Karen Lugo. She not only liked the speech, she liked his undeniable central casting qualities - the broad shoulders, six-foot-six frame, the voice like rolling thunder.

Ms. LUGO: I could see someone tonight that would, like President Reagan, look Gorbachev in the eye and say, this is the line, don't cross it. I really felt tonight that he's the kind of individual that could do that.

JAFFE: But Fred Thompson dropped no hint last night of whether he'll take the plunge. He's previously said he'd announce his decision in June or July. In an interview on Fox News, he once acknowledged that he hasn't had to battle for the opportunities that have come his way.

I've never beaten down a lot of doors in my life, he said. But occasionally doors have opened to me and I had sense enough to walk through them.

Another door may be opening now for Thompson because a lot of Republican voters think the 10 choices they have just aren't enough.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Newport Beach, California.

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