SIOUX CITY, Iowa – Republican Fred Thompson said Friday that terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden is "more symbolism than anything else" as the presidential hopeful warned of possible greater Al Qaeda threats within the United States.
As a new video surfaced from bin Laden days before the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Thompson focused on the broader war on terrorism and the Iraq conflict. He argued that not only are the United States and Iraqi forces making progress in Iraq, but that public support for the war is increasing.
The new video of bin Laden is his first in three years. Thompson played down its release in talking to reporters on his second day of campaigning in Iowa.
"Bin Laden being in the mountains of Pakistan or Afghanistan is not as important as there are probably Al Qaeda operatives inside the United States of America," Thompson said.
Bin Laden is considered the man behind the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. The former Tennessee senator and actor argued that "bin Laden is more symbolism than anything else. I think it demonstrates to people once again that we're in a global war."
Thompson said the Al Qaeda leader and the Iraq war must be seen as part of the larger war on terrorism.
"It's one that bin Laden and people like him are heading up and we need to catch him and we surely need to deal with him, but if he disappeared tomorrow we still have this problem. If Iraq disappeared tomorrow, we'd still have this problem," Thompson said.
Later in the day, and after Democrats had been critical of his earlier remarks, Thompson took a much tougher stance. "Apparently Usama bin Laden has crawled out of his cave long enough to send another video and he is getting a lot of attention," he said at a rally in Mason City. "He ought to be caught and killed."
Thompson maintained, however, that killing bin Laden would not end the terrorist threat.
The release of the bin Laden video drew a strong response from two of Thompson's rivals, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
"Usama bin Laden and his henchmen must be hunted down — and as president, I will," McCain said in a statement. "My presidency will be Al Qaeda's worst nightmare."
Campaigning in Florida, Giuliani said it's "a very, very important objective to capture him and take him out."
Among the Democratic presidential candidates, former Sen. John Edwards said, "Fred Thompson should know better. Responsible candidates for president talk about real solutions that will make America safer from terrorism. They don't ignore the fact that George Bush's policies have only made the threat of terrorism worse."
On Iraq, Thompson defended his support for the war and contended that progress has been made months after President Bush sent in 30,000 more combat troops. The American people, he said, recognize that the situation has improved.
"I think you're already seeing a change in perception as better news comes out of Iraq," Thompson said. "I think the American people will come to that view as they see things develop. We are finally on the right track in Iraq and we're making progress."
Asked whether the U.S. should have focused on getting bin Laden instead of going to war in Iraq, Thompson said: "It's not an either or situation. Saddam Hussein was on the cusp of having defeated the United Nations and the free world and the United States. He had certainly had weapons of mass destruction and the capability of reviving his nuclear program."
During his second day as an officially declared candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, Thompson sounded his trademark conservative themes, focusing on limited government, gun rights, opposition to abortion and tougher immigration laws.
"If we catch illegal immigrants who are here they need to be deported," Thompson said during a stop in Sioux City. "If they want to get in line to come back in the right way let them get in line."
When asked by reporters about gay marriage, Thompson said he supports a traditional view of marriage as being between a man and a woman, but he did not criticize gays and lesbians.
"I'm not going to pass judgment on several million of my fellow citizens," Thompson said. "I think anybody who knows me knows how I feel about the importance of the family. A president of the United States should not go out of their way to castigate or pass judgment on a large segment of people."
Earlier in the day, Thompson defended his wife's role in his campaign, saying she has only been doing what he had asked her to do.
"If some people who got their feelings hurt anonymously now want to go after her instead of me because they might feel like she's an easier target, there's nothing I can do about that," Thompson said.
"But I don't have any further need for explanation for anything that she's done. Thank goodness she's there," the former Tennessee senator said in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Thompson's initial efforts to get the GOP presidential nod were plagued by high-profile staff departures and lackluster fundraising. Some critics have blamed the rocky start on the active role played in the campaign by his wife, Jeri, a former political and media consultant.
Thompson, 65, who disclosed in April that he was diagnosed in 2004 with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a highly treatable form of cancer, also sought to allay any concerns about his health.
"My latest checkup was 100 percent," Thompson said. "If I thought I had any problems I assure you I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today. I haven't been sick a day in my life from this. It's a good kind of thing to have, if you can say such a thing."