WASHINGTON – He’s a presidential player cut from Hollywood cloth, but is Fred Thompson more than a stuffed shirt?
Past colleagues and Tennessee supporters think so, but some political analysts say the former senator has more to prove if he’s serious about running for president in 2008.
"I think his support right now might be a mile wide but an inch deep," said political science professor Sean Evans of Union University in Tennessee. Most people know more about Thompson’s role in TV’s "Law & Order" than as head of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee during the Clinton administration, he added.
"It might be like the Wizard of Oz, the more people know about him, will he live up to their expectations?" Evans said. "I think a lot of the support is not pro-Thompson than it is more anti-everybody else."
True or not, Thompson, who has yet to say whether he will run, is making waves in the polls against declared Republican candidates. He even came in second to Rudy Giuliani and ahead of Sen. John McCain in a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg News survey of probable Republican primary voters.
"Thompson has the potential of going places," said Republican pollster Matt Towery of InsiderAdvantage.
The Watergate counsel-lobbyist-actor-senator has plenty of friends on Capitol Hill who say the man is more than a wish for Republicans searching for a star.
"He demanded competent leadership throughout the federal government as chairman of the Government Affairs Committee and held those who failed to deliver it accountable," said friend and former Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist in an e-mail statement. "He would bring that same dedication to effective and efficient public service to the White House."
Rep. John Duncan and Rep. Zack Wamp, both Tennessee Republicans, and "a bunch of our colleagues" would be hosting Thompson in a special reception on Capitol Hill this week, Duncan told FOXNews.com.
"He’s a real fine man and I think he was an outstanding senator," said Duncan. "He’s got the courage to take unpopular stances at times and has a consistent conservative record, and I think will appeal to conservatives all over the country."
Getting the conservative base on board is key to winning the primary, but some analysts point out that Thompson has not always made the GOP base so happy.
Thompson v. Clintons
Thompson, 64, came to the Senate in 1994 after a career as a lobbyist and prosecutor. He had already begun starring in films, his first role playing himself in the 1977 movie "Marie," as the Tennessee prosecutor who brought down Gov. Ray Blanton over a parole-selling scheme in the governor’s office.
He won Tennessee voters over with his down-home charm, campaigning throughout the state in a flannel work shirt and pick-up truck, according to the Almanac of American Politics. Once in office, he voted consistently pro-life, defended states' rights and eventually received an 86 percent lifetime rating with the American Conservative Union.
He ran into trouble with conservatives in 1997, however, after he took charge investigating the Clinton-Gore White House for fundraising irregularities. Many of the people subpoenaed before Thompson’s Senate panel wouldn't produce information or fled the country altogether, particularly on the issue of Chinese contributions infiltrating President Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, said Evans.
"Many people thought Clinton ran circles around him," he said.
Thompson soon shifted the focus of his hearings onto campaign finance reform, which he supported with his friend Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. But that was and still is a non-starter for many conservative Republicans.
"As much as I liked him he did not exactly break his heart in investigating the Chinese money allegedly coming into the United States for campaigns," said John Gizzi, political editor for the conservative Human Events magazine. "And I also felt he allowed those hearings to turn into a forum on campaign finance."
Conservatives are still smarting from the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act signed in 2002, which put stricter limits on spending and wiped out soft money contributions.
Evans said Thompson also was never a hero of the religious right. "They are not going to be as impressed" with Thompson, he ventured.
Gizzi said top religious conservatives he’s spoken with seem willing to start a new relationship.
"They are searching for a Republican Mr. Right," he said.
Tennessee Favorite Son
According to polls and friends in his home state, Thompson won't have much difficulty convincing Tennesseans of his qualifications.
"He was as popular leaving office as when he went into office," said friend Bob Davis, who is the chairman of the Tennessee GOP.
"A lot of things you don't know about the guy is how he served his constituents, how he took care of them," said Davis, who was Thompson's state director while he was in office and worked on his campaign.
"He was the kind of senator that kind of rose above the partisan fray; he carried himself well and confidently," Wamp said. "Slow to anger, somewhat laid back but incredibly thoughtful. A kind of statesman. That's the way people in Tennessee see him."
In an early April survey by InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion, Thompson polled way ahead of other GOP candidates among self-described Republicans in Tennessee. He garnered 45 percent, followed by Giuliani with a distant 15 percent.
But a Gallup Poll in late March found that 58 percent of respondents hadn't yet heard of Thompson.
Today's headlines may be the best place to start brushing up on who he is. In the last week, Americans learned that Thompson has beaten back indolent lymphoma, a largely treatable form of cancer, though it is the same type of cancer that killed Massachusetts senator and former presidential candidate, Democrat Paul Tsongas, in 1997.
Political analysts say this news -- announced by Thompson -- is further evidence that he plans to run and wants to get the issue of his health out of the way. Others have suggested the revelation may be a drag on a presidential campaign. Thompson himself said he wanted to release the information so he could hear reaction from voters.
Thompson also came out with a strong argument for tax cuts in Saturday's Wall Street Journal op-ed page. And in the latest edition of The Weekly Standard, it was revealed that not only does Thompson defend President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq, but he thinks regime change in Iran is the only way to go.
Sherri Annis, a political media consultant, says if Thompson is running, he will eventually cease to be a blank slate where "you can make him whatever you want him to be."
"The media loves a new character, especially one who is a Hollywood character," she said. "But I haven't been hearing a lot about his policy positions."