Thompson Visit Teases Iowa's Republican Voters

Former senator and actor Fred Thompson, an undeclared Republican presidential hopeful, did not take part in the Aug. 11 Iowa straw poll. The state's caucuses begin the nominating process in January. Will Thompson's decision hurt him in the Hawkeye State if he officially enters the race?

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Fred Thompson says he's still testing the waters for a presidential run. But until yesterday, he hadn't dipped so much as a toe in Iowa. Mr. Thompson made a stop at the state fair in Des Moines on Friday, nearly a week after he skipped the Iowa Straw Poll. Republicans who are still not satisfied with their choices appear to be receptive to what the former senator from Tennessee has to say.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: Judging from the opening anecdotes at the speech at the Iowa state fair, actor and former Senator Fred Thompson knows "Law & Order" reruns aren't going to be enough to keep him afloat while he builds up to a presidential campaign.

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Former Republican Senator, Tennessee): I was at an airport recently and a lady came up and said, we just loved your TV show. You meant so much to me and my family, I just can't tell you what big fans we are and so forth, we're just stopping and say hello to my husband and (unintelligible) oh, certainly, certainly, I'd be glad, then the little lady said, honey, you'll never believe it, Dr. Phil.

CORNISH: But while TV psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw gives advice, Thompson was getting it.

Mr. DELL JOHNSON(ph) (Resident, Iowa): I did get a chance to talk to him. And I said quit thinking, just quit thinking about it and get it in.

CORNISH: Dell Johnson(ph) in Minden(ph), Iowa, says he's impressed with Thompson's laid-back style but says it's time for him to commit to running. And that's a legitimate concern, says Professor Dennis Goldford of Drake University in Des Moines.

Professor DENNIS GOLDFORD (Political Science, Drake University, Des Moines): Like all actors, Fred Thompson wants to have a grand entrance. But, of course, if you leave the audience sitting too long, the audience starts to get a little impatient.

CORNISH: But the majority of opinion among those sampled at the state fair seems to be that they just want to learn more about Thompson.

Mr. TERRY KATCH(ph) (Resident, Des Moines, Iowa): I know he's a TV actor and a former senator, but otherwise I don't know much about him.

Ms. KAYE CHRISTIANSEN(ph) (Resident, Des Moines, Iowa): He needs to let us know who he is and what he's about and what his politics are.

Mr. PAUL GUAN(ph) (Resident, Grimes, Iowa): You know, other than his movies and his TV, I didn't even realize until the last year or so that he was involved (unintelligible) back to Watergate. I didn't know him that well.

CORNISH: Terry Katch and Kaye Christiansen of Des Moines and Paul Guan of Grimes, Iowa, were among the voters in line for the wildly unscientific corn kernel poll.

Each added a kernel of corn to the (unintelligible) in jar labeled with the photo of their candidate of choice. Thompson's jars, for now, were half full. But it's not too late for him to make headway in the all-important Iowa caucuses in January, says David Yepsen, political columnist for the Des Moines Register.

Mr. DAVID YEPSEN (Political Columnist, Des Moines Register): The challenge for - Senator Thompson is going to be finding the time to spend in Iowa, that he needs to spend to build an organization and still do everything else he has to do in this campaign like raise money and be in other early states.

CORNISH: So far, Thompson's initial fundraising numbers for his testing-the-waters committee have fallen short of expectations. But Yepsen says there's still valuable manpower out there for the taking because Republican activists are still looking for someone they can embrace.

Mr. YEPSEN: Other Republican candidates have some flaw or limitation that causes problems with some of these activists. And Senator Thompson on - at the beginning seems to be a candidate who might be able to overcome some of those limitations.

CORNISH: While Thompson spent the afternoon pressing the flesh here, he spent the morning meeting with state GOP legislators, social conservative groups and activists. And he used his speech at the fair to stake out his ground with conservative voters.

Mr. THOMPSON: I am unabashedly pro-life. I am pro-2nd amendment and I don't apologize for the United States of America. This country has shed more blood for the freedom of other people than all the other nations in the history of the world combined. And I'm tired of people feeling like they got to apologize for America.

(Soundbite of applause)

CORNISH: Fred Thompson is also not apologizing for holding off on declaring his candidacy. But this stance may not last for long. Thompson is widely expected to announce for president on September 5th, shortly after Labor Day.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Des Moines, Iowa.

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