Testing the Waters: Time Up for GOP's Thompson? Fred Thompson has ostensibly been "testing the waters" for his presidential candidacy: spending money, traveling, hiring staff. But how long, legally, can this go on? Some say he is violating federal election laws. The Thompson campaign insists it is following the rules.
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Testing the Waters: Time Up for GOP's Thompson?

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Testing the Waters: Time Up for GOP's Thompson?

Testing the Waters: Time Up for GOP's Thompson?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It was back before Memorial Day when Republican Fred Thompson started talking openly about running for president. Well now, summer is almost gone and he still hasn't made it official. He's been doing what politicians call testing the waters.

NPR's Peter Overby explains what that really means.

PETER OVERBY: The idea behind testing the waters is to let you, the ambitious politico, quietly measure support of a candidacy. But the law says you can't campaign like a candidate, which is why Fred Thompson raises eyebrows when he says things like this in a WHO radio interview at Iowa State Fair a few days ago.

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Former Republican Senator, Tennessee): I have declared that I'm going to declare and make a statement about declaring. It's the testing the waters phase. It's a legal deal that allows you to get out and test the waters and see if your candidacy is viable and raise a little money in the process. And that's what we're doing.

Mr. LANE HUDSON (Progressive Blogger): He's crossed the line. He's crossed it months ago.

OVERBY: Progressive blogger Lane Hudson has lodged a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. He says Thompson's rhetoric and fundraising both show this has gone beyond testing any waters. He notes that Thompson's committee has raised three and a half million dollars and socked away 80 percent of it for what exactly?

Legally, a testing-the-waters committee can't be used to raise money for the upcoming campaign, but some of Thompson's big donors have already earmarked contributions for the fall 2008 contest.

A Thompson spokesman, Jim Mills, says Thompson is following the law to the fullest extent. Most presidential candidates skipped this whole business. Some of them have set up exploratory committees - Hillary Clinton is still using hers. But legally, those are just like other regular campaign committees. And Thompson isn't the first to be accused of testing the waters for too long.

In 1988, Republican Pat Robertson violated the testing-the-waters rule, in part by raising money for his post-announcement campaign. In 2003, unannounced Democrat Al Sharpton toured Iowa, New Hampshire and even wrote a book referring to himself as a candidate. Both were fined by the Federal Election Commission.

Larry Noble was the commission's general counsel in those cases. He says Thompson is being careful.

Mr. LARRY NOBLE (General Counsel, Federal Election Commission): You can tell that he's trying to thread that needle. The question is, has he done it successfully.

OVERBY: An open question according to Noble.

Mr. NOBLE: What the FEC has looked at is the amount of money you raise and the exact statement you're making. Are you saying that it looks like I'm going to run, or I'm going to make the big announcement, I see what I'm going to do in the future? Or is this something where you're saying I really have not decided?

OVERBY: Thompson is expected to announce within the next few weeks. And even the timing of that has come under scrutiny. If he announces after September 5th, he could slow off through the start-up process pushing it into the fourth quarter and thus avoiding any financial disclosure until late January, in other words, well after some of the biggest primaries. A clever stratagem, but hardly something to get a presidential campaign off on a positive note.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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