REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
Ten Republican presidential candidates will have their own debate tomorrow evening in New Hampshire. One who won't be there is Fred Thompson. The actor and former Tennessee senator has yet to declare his candidacy. He's only begun testing-the-waters phase of his campaign.
But as NPR's Audie Cornish reports, he's already having a major impact.
AUDIE CORNISH: He may not be an official candidate yet and he won't be on stage tomorrow in New Hampshire, but Fred Thompson's presence in the Republican field has been unavoidable. Just the rumor of his candidacy has made him among the top GOP leaders in every poll taken. He's been doing radio commentaries. He took on filmmaker Michael Moore in a YouTube video. And he was the keynote speaker Saturday night at a Richmond Virginia party fundraiser where he alluded to his visibility.
Senator FRED THOMPSON (Republican, Tennessee): Thank you for all the kind mentions that I've got tonight from the folks who follow "Law and Order". Some people say that they watch me Monday nights and some say Tuesday nights, and some say Wednesday nights. And, of course, it occurred to me I'm - they watch it. They can't avoid it. It's all in all.
CORNISH: Between dozens of autograph requests and camera phone snapshots, Virginia Republicans gave Fred Thompson a welcome more apt to a celebutant starlet than a craggy character actor. Thompson presented himself as the hawkish, economic conservative option, ready to take a hardline on activist judges, the war on terror and an issue that's divided Republicans: immigration.
Sen. THOMPSON: This is our home and whether you're a first-generation American or a third-generation American or a brand-newly admitted American, this is our home and we get to decide who comes into our home.
CORNISH: And as for the dilemma the party finds itself in, he refuse to sugarcoat the situation.
Sen. THOMPSON: These polls showed Republicans have declined. And of course, we know some of the reasons why we declined. Some of us came to town to drain the swamp and made a partnership with the alligators.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. THOMPSON: And then remember to drain the swamp. So we got whomped(ph) last time, and we're going to learn from that.
CORNISH: But Thompson, in an allusion to one of his movie roles, has a solution.
Sen. THOMPSON: I think you might even say that you're in Virginia. We're in the hunt for a red November. What do you think?
(Soundbite of applause)
CORNISH: It's his directness that's most appealing to the rank-and-file Republicans at the Virginia dinner like Penite Alliwalia(ph) and Lotten Baker(ph).
Mr. PENITE ALLIWALIA (Republican Supporter): I think what he has is truly the connectivity with the Republican's conservative values, which he brings to it a straight arc. His entire demeanor as maybe an easy person to deal with and talk to.
Ms. LOTTEN BAKER (Republican Supporter): You know, he's got character. He's got honesty. He has a clear message. He's really, I think, head and shoulders above the other Republican candidates.
CORNISH: That, says GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio, is where Thompson comes in.
Mr. TONY FABRIZIO (GOP Pollster): Well, I think the perception is that Fred Thompson holds the position necessary to at least be the consensus candidate whereby he can please the economic wing of the party, the foreign policy wing of the party, the moral issue wing of the party, the social issue wing of the party. And, you know, basically by process of elimination, be the guy that gets the most out of each of those segments.
CORNISH: There's still considerable debate whether Thompson is getting into the race too late between now and when he's expected to officially announce his candidacy around July 4th. He needs to get the most out of his time in the spotlight. That means showing he can raise the amount of money and attract the kind of talent for party operatives to see him as viable.
Audie Cornish, NPR News.
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