Fred Thompson Mum on GOP Presidential Bid

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Fred Thompson has not appeared in a Republican presidential debate, has spent relatively little money, and has not even announced his candidacy. But the actor and former U.S. Senator from Tennessee is among the leaders in every poll of GOP voters. But how long is too long to wait?

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

You know, Fred Thompson, the former Senator, likes to say that people were claiming he needed a hundred million dollars to compete for the presidency. Well, so far, he has not appeared in a Republican presidential debate, has spent relatively little money and, in fact, has not even announced his candidacy. Yet he is among the leaders in every poll of GOP voters.

By working under the testing the waters provision of federal election laws, Thompson has been able to hopscotch the country for fundraising events and put together his staff. The question, though, is how long he can wait to really declare.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: First, word came that it might be July 4th, then mid-July. Later reports indicated August 1st. No, wait - Labor Day, with a weeks-long national tour. The fact is, when Fred Thompson actually plans to announce that he's running for president is and has been anybody's guess. His fans - nicknamed Fred Heads or Fred Necks - are just as anxious.

Representative ZACH WAMP (Republican, Tennessee): It's really exciting, but I do hear from everybody that they're ready to rock and roll. I mean, this is like a bunch of horses at the Kentucky Derby. They're in the gates. They've been in the gates longer than they're normally in the gates and they're getting restless, but they are ready to race. So what I'm hearing from everybody all the time is let's get going.

CORNISH: Tennessee Congressman Zach Wamp headed the draft effort that led Thompson to consider a run. Back in early July, Thompson announced he'd be testing the waters before getting into the race. But testing the waters isn't just a catchphrase. It's an actual category under federal election law that allows a person to raise money, do speaking engagements to gauge interest while barring them from corporate donations and acting as a candidate.

Ms. MEREDITH MCGEHEE (Policy Director, Campaign Legal Center): What's interesting is usually testing the waters means you're sticking in your little pinky or little toe. It seems to me that Mr. Thompson is up to his neck in running for office.

CORNISH: Meredith McGehee is from the Campaign Legal Center, the campaign finance watchdog group.

Ms. MCGEHEE: And part of the strategy here is, first, to play coy and to keep the press interested because once you declare, you're not as interesting. Secondly, it allows him not to have as much scrutiny of his contributors.

CORNISH: McGehee says avoiding a formal announcement allows Thompson to avoid having to report the money he's raised, which could make his nascent look weak.

While early frontrunner John McCain has faltered over funds, staffing and the political slings and arrows from opponents, Thompson has waged his pre-campaign activities in peace. He limits his comments to (unintelligible) on his Web site.

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Former Republican Senator, Tennessee): Hey, this is Fred Thompson. I've been traveling last couple of days. I had a great day yesterday in Nashville, got down to Franklin to see my mama. Today, a wonderful day in Columbia, South Carolina.

CORNISH: He talks policy in closed speeches and private fundraisers and maintains a consistent presence on political blogs and talk radio.

(Soundbite of radio talk show)

Unidentified Man: He said, I want to ask you this. You're under attack, it seems like every day, from Democrat campaigns, from Republican campaigns, from the media. They fear you, Senator. They're worried about you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I think they're pretty smart, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: And for all the impressive polling numbers at this point, there's a downside to his strategy, especially since the other candidates have been shaking hands in diners and living rooms for months, says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Mr. STUART ROTHENBERG (Editor, Rothenberg Political Report): Either people get tired of waiting and they say if you can't decide, Fred Thompson, that you're going to run, I'm going to pick another horse. Or they get so excited that when he finally enters the race, he simply can't fulfill all these expectations and the excitement - he looks like just another candidate and frankly disappoints people. Those are some potential problems for a late Thompson entry.

CORNISH: The Thompson people insist they're not worried. Here's Ken Khachigian, a Thompson adviser who spoke last week on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Mr. KEN KHACHIGIAN (Senior Adviser, Fred Thompson's Exploratory Presidential Campaign): I think it's not going to be that big of a problem. In fact, when you do look at some of the polls, national and regional, in effect, without having spent, really, a lot of money or very little at all, it's the equivalent of having raised and spent $35 million when you compare it to the other candidates.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, Thompson is still honing his message - opening offices in Virginia and Tennessee, and fundraising at dinners from San Diego to Dallas. The next Republican debate takes place in Iowa on August 5th, followed by one a month later in New Hampshire. There's still no word when Thompson will finally show up.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Nashville, Tennessee.

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