WASHINGTON – As a veteran actor, Fred Dalton Thompson knows something about entering a stage. It's all about the build up.
The former Tennessee senator plans to announce his official entry into the Republican presidential contest on Thursday. But he'll pique interest first on Wednesday with an ad aired during a GOP presidential debate from New Hampshire that Thompson will otherwise skip.
Watch FOX News Channel and FOXNews.com beginning 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday for live coverage of the Republican presidential primary debate at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
By then he will have taped an appearance on NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," which will air about an hour after the debate ends in many U.S. households. Come midnight, he'll post a 15-minute video announcement on his official Web site.
The face time with Leno and the debate ad on the FOX network are the coquettish moves of a candidate who has already proven his aptitude using the media, from television to the Internet. While his main rivals — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain — parry debate questions, Thompson will pretty much control his own message.
Thompson aides want as many eyes on the Web video as possible. The debate ad and a follow-up commercial on Thursday will instruct viewers to go online and get their undiluted message straight from the candidate.
"We think one of the strongest weapons this campaign has is Fred Thompson's ability to connect directly with the public," said Todd Harris, Thompson's communications director. "We want to drive as much traffic as possible to the Web site."
Following that media drum roll, Thompson will make his first campaign appearance as a declared candidate Thursday afternoon in Iowa.
Thompson is hardly the first to use the Internet and media to build up public interest. In January, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton announced her Democratic presidential bid with a Webcast. In contrast, Sen. Barack Obama chose a more traditional route, announcing to a crowd in his home state of Illinois.
What stands out for Thompson is his blend of paid advertising, talk-show appearance, Internet and stump speech — all in less than 24 hours.
"That's the modern way to do it," said Tobe Berkovitz, the interim dean at Boston University's college of communications. "Especially if people are looking for something new on the Republican side. People have had plenty of time to look at Rudy or Mitt or McCain. So it makes sense for Thompson to march to his own campaign drummer."
Thompson's debate ad and Leno appearance could pose a risk, highlighting for voters Thompson's decision to forgo an exchange of views in New Hampshire with the remainder of the Republican field.
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden pointedly noted Tuesday that Romney has traversed the state of New Hampshire, addressing voters and giving interviews.
"Tomorrow night is an opportunity to spend an hour and half with New Hampshire voters and talk to them about issues that are important to them," Madden said. "Contrast that with 30 seconds in a paid ad."
But Harris said the point of the ad is to remind the public that Thompson is on the immediate horizon and that voters should keep an open mind.
"For every person watching that debate who thinks they've made up their mind, there are probably going to be 20 who haven't decided."
Thompson has made ample use of his Web site over the summer as he pursued a "testing the waters" campaign. By not announcing his candidacy, Thompson was allowed to raise money to explore the possibility of a presidential bid without having to meet certain federal election disclosure requirements. At the same time, Thompson could not advertise, describe himself as a presidential candidate or raise more money that his "testing the waters" efforts would consume.
A liberal blogger has asked for an FEC investigation into whether Thompson violated prohibitions on fundraising. On Tuesday, the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in journalism, a research group, described Thompson's Web site as far more interactive and sophisticated than that of his rivals. The site offers a collection of videos, a personal Thompson blog and various solicitations to raise money.
Lane Hudson, who asked the Federal Election commission to investigate Thompson, has cited those activities as further evidence that Thompson's unannounced campaign violated federal regulations.
"That's an irrelevant assessment because in a few days you will see Fred Thompson mixing it up with reporters and taking tough questions from voters," Harris said.