Thompson Edges Closer to Presidential Bid

Appearing on The Tonight Show, Sen. Fred Thompson says he would like to be president. Matthew Dowd, a Republican strategist who worked on President Bush's campaigns, discusses Thompson's prospects.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Talk show host Jay Leno had a question last night for former Senator Fred Thompson.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tonight Show")

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Tonight Show"): Would you like the job of president of the United States?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: And the man perhaps best known for playing a prosecutor on television's "Law and Order" had this reply.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tonight Show")

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Former Republican Senator, Tennessee; Character Actor; Republican Presidential Hopeful): I've never craved the job of president. But I want to do some things that only a president can do. So the answer is yes.

MONTAGNE: Fred Thompson has already formed a presidential exploratory committee, and his appearance on "The Tonight Show" was perhaps a small step closer to a formal announcement that he will join the crowded field of candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

Matthew Dowd is a former strategist for President Bush. He's now unaffiliated, and he joins us on the line to talk about this. Good morning.

Mr. MATTHEW DOWD (Former Chief Campaign Strategist, President George W. Bush; Founding Partner, ViaNovo): Hey. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. So Fred Thompson says he has never craved the presidency. Do you have to crave the office to win it?

Mr. DOWD: I don't know if crave is the right word. But you certainly have to really, really desire it deep, deep down because what you're about to go through and the process you have to go through and what you have to do to get elected president. So maybe not crave, but you certainly have to have a serious, serious commitment to wanting it.

MONTAGNE: Well, polls in the last few days have showed Thompson either second or tying with former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He's also way ahead of Governor Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain in the Republican field. Do people know what Thompson stands for, or are they projecting what they want on him?

Mr. DOWD: I think it's a combination of a couple of things. First, it's the unsettled nature of the field. And there's still a number of voters out there looking for somebody in the Republican primary that sort of carries what they want to the nomination. And so I think it's the unsettled nature of the field.

But it's also is - there's some projection on him. But there's also a sort of sense of who he is by either his service in the Senate or even how he's been on television and just sort of who the man is or the measure of the man, whether it's his strength he projects or competence or whatever it happens to be. So I think it's a combination of all of those things, and I think he comes to the field with all those things in an unsettled field, which is why he has risen so fast.

MONTAGNE: And there's been some comparisons to Ronald Reagan - a silly one, of course, is Ronald Reagan was also in a movie called "Law and Order." He played a marshal.

Mr. DOWD: Well, I think, you know, there is some comparisons. I mean, obviously, both are movie actors and both have a commanding presence actually on screen, which is obviously always helpful at a time when electronic media -whether it's radio or television - is important in that. And so I think that time will tell the true comparison.

I think most of what we really know about a person is when the process they start running, not before they run. We learned that about Ronald Reagan. I think we will learn that about Fred Thompson.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, we do know some things about Fred Thompson because he did served those years in the Senate. Give us a list of issues, we're likely to see him taking a lead on.

Mr. DOWD: Well, he is a conservative. I mean, from his record in the Senate and from things he's talked about, he's conservative. So he is a conservative on social issues, and he's a conservative on fiscal issues. And so he'll talk about those things, I'm sure.

But if I were counseling him, I would certainly have a discussion about trying to get Washington to work and make it work again. Because I think there's a number of people in America that feel like Washington is out of step. It doesn't understand where they are. And the federal government's just not aligned with their everyday lives. So he'll probably talk about a number of things. It's something he's going to have to settle. But if I were him, I'd certainly talk about trying to make Washington work and get the job done.

MONTAGNE: Matt, thanks very much.

Mr. DOWD: It's always a pleasure. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Matthew Dowd is a former Bush strategist and a founding partner of ViaNovo.

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