WASHINGTON – There was a time when Fred Thompson suggested that he couldn't see himself running for office again.
"For me, the George Washington example of serving eight years and riding out of town on a horse and never returning has great appeal," the Tennessee Republican said in 2002, the twilight of his eight-year Senate career.
Now, five years later, he is a well-known TV actor who finds himself on the verge of a real-life presidential bid, seemingly recruited by activists hungry for someone to fill what they see as a conservative void among the top-tier GOP hopefuls.
Numerous signs point to a Thompson candidacy, and a summertime announcement is widely expected, although people close to him caution that he has not made a final decision about running.
Never mind that he basically already is.
Thompson is hiring staff, speaking to conservative groups, writing online columns on topics of the day and staking out positions on issues like the Senate immigration overhaul. He also is testing his pitch on the Internet.
"It's important to the future of this country that (Republicans) have somebody that can win in November," Thompson said in a recent online interview. "People are looking for somebody who can talk straight to them. That's what I hope I bring to bear."
His expected entrance into the already crowded GOP field could dramatically shake up the wide-open race but it's unclear who among the strongest contenders, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney, would be affected the most.
Not yet a full-fledged candidate, Thompson has found himself competitive with them in national popularity polls. That's likely due in part to his acting role as district attorney Arthur Branch on NBC's popular drama "Law & Order."
Conservatives who make up a big part of the GOP base have found fault with Giuliani, McCain and Romney for varying reasons and for months now have been searching for a candidate to embrace.
Thompson's backers bill him as the perfect person — the one truly conservative candidate in the mold of Ronald Reagan who can beat the Democratic nominee in November 2008. Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee called Thompson "naturally conservative with a down-home sense of humor and a confidence about who he is."
In the Senate, Thompson was considered a reliably conservative vote. The American Conservative Union gave him a lifetime rating of 86 out of 100. He fiercely backed the Iraq war, worked to limit the federal government's role, supported banning a late-term abortion procedure, and voted for President Bush's tax cuts.
But he sometimes took paths that didn't necessarily sit well with conservatives, including advocating for campaign finance reform. He also was one of four senators who backed underdog McCain in 2000 over George W. Bush, the establishment candidate. Social issues, important to the party's right-flank, also typically weren't at the top of his agenda.
Yet, some may be willing to look past those issues.
"There are plenty of people standing on the sidelines waiting for Thompson to get in the race, and if he doesn't, they're going to stay on the sidelines," said Greg Carson, the GOP chairman in New Hampshire's Rockingham County.
Added Robin Malmberg, his counterpart in Henry County, Iowa: "Personally, I'm still waiting for the one that just tells it like it is. So my curiosity is piqued with Thompson."
The Thompson presidential talk started early this year with a Tennessee-based draft effort. His initial flirtation with the idea quickly became a calculated march. First, he announced he is in remission from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer. Then, he met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and gave speeches to conservative organizations. Now, he's building a campaign organization, tapping former Reagan and Bush aides for senior posts.
Late to the game by months, Thompson faces several challenges, not the least of which would be turning strong buzz on the Internet and some support in Washington into actual votes in GOP primary contests.
"Fred has the most spontaneous support than anyone in the last 40 years," said an undeterred Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
But he still lags the declared candidates in fundraising by multimillions and he also will have to counter the perception, in Washington at least, that he doesn't have the passion to run for president. His backers dispute that notion and say money won't be a problem given Thompson's Hollywood ties and Tennessee network.
Then there are Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other early primary voting states, where Thompson's rivals have spent months building campaign organizations and courting grass-roots supporters.
Given that disparity, Thompson has indicated that he would not run a traditional campaign. Already, much of his recent activity has been on the Internet, an indication of the direction he may be headed.
Last week, he went online to put the smack down on lefty Michael Moore after the two sparred over the producer's movie "Sicko," which depicts Sept. 11 survivors seeking medical care in Cuba.
In an online video, Thompson puffed on a cigar as he sat in a leather desk chair and reminded Moore that the Cuban government once put a documentary filmmaker in a mental institution.
"Mental institution, Michael. Might be something you ought to think about," Thompson says — in what could be called the first ad of his would-be campaign.