Rivals Try To Deflate F. Thompson Campaign



Fred Thompson has had a relatively easy ride as he has flirted with a bid for the Republican presidential nomination. His strategists have found traction promoting him as the heir to Ronald Reagan -- and a conservative alternative to the top tier of the GOP field.

But the ride is starting to get a bit bumpy.

Opponents and their researchers have begun working -- mostly behind the scenes -- to highlight perceived soft spots in his conservative bona fides.

And Thompson will have to neutralize questions on the campaign trail and in the media about his centrist votes in the Senate, his stances on litmus test conservative issues including abortion and -- perhaps most significantly -- his work as a lawyer and lobbyist.

Thompson's biggest challenge will likely be cementing his image as a conservative country lawyer fixin' to shake up Washington -- before his opponents brand him as an influence peddler and trial lawyer.

Here are the roles into which opponents will likely try to cast Thompson and the ways in which he may seek to inoculate himself:

Tricky clientele

-- Lobbyist: Thompson made nearly $1.3 million over about two decades of lobbying both before and after his eight-year Senate stint, according to government documents and media accounts from his successful run for the Senate in 1994.

Though Thompson won in a landslide, that was in a watershed Republican year and before the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal helped Democrats effectively wield the culture-of-corruption theme against Republicans.

Some of Thompson's clients could prove tricky to explain, from a British reinsurance company facing billions of dollars in asbestos claims to deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

If Thompson formally enters the race next month, as his aides have signaled, his campaign will likely try to minimize his lobbying.

Thompson spokesman Mark Corallo called the list "incredibly old news and incredibly stale news" and stressed that lobbying was but a small part of Thompson's legal practice.

"He had a law practice for over 30 years and he had about half a dozen lobbying clients," Corallo said.

Trial lawyers are bogeymen?

-- Trial lawyer: Before Thompson won his Senate seat, published reports said his private law practice handled personal injury cases and defended people accused of white-collar crimes. And in the Senate, he opposed some legislation intended to rein in escalating jury verdicts and attorneys' fees.

Trial lawyers are bogeymen for some conservative groups, which consider them Exhibit A for a legal system that rewards greed over industriousness.

But Thompson appears likely to tout the public service aspects of his legal career, including stints as an assistant U.S. attorney and Watergate congressional counsel, as well as a case in which he uncovered a payoff scheme that landed a Tennessee governor in prison.

"This is a guy who was an incredibly accomplished attorney," Corallo said.

As for the Senate record, Corallo pointed out that Thompson supported some tort reform measures.

He voted against others because he felt they infringed on states' rights, Corallo said, asserting, "He was consistent in voting against measures that provided the federal government powers that the federal government shouldn't have. … People understand that."

Backed McCain-Feingold

-- Campaign finance reformer: Thompson was among the leading Republican backers of the sweeping package of campaign finance reforms commonly known as McCain-Feingold.

Since it passed into law in 2002, conservative activists have derided it as an infringement on their free speech and have held a grudge against its GOP sponsor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose presidential campaign has struggled to win over conservatives.

Expect conservative groups and rivals to emphasize Thompson's support for the bill, even calling it "McCain-Feinold-Thompson."

In recent months, Thompson has worked to give himself cover on the issue, asserting that the law didn't work as intended and suggesting the fairly drastic step of removing contribution limits entirely.

"The conservatives who have spoken with Fred have been satisfied with his position as it stands," Corallo said, though he added campaign finance should not "be at the top of the priority list when you're talking about challenges America is facing."

Centrist or conservative?

-- Centrist senator: Though the influential American Conservative Union scored Thompson's Senate career voting record at 86 percent, some of the votes on which he strayed from the GOP fold could prove problematic for ardent partisans.

For instance, he backed a 1998 bill that would have established a temporary farm worker program and a 1996 bill to increase the minimum wage. And he voted against one of the two impeachment charges brought against President Clinton in 1999.

Thompson will defend each vote individually, Corallo said, but will argue he approached all decisions from a conservative, federalist position.

As for immigration, Thompson has come out strongly against the pending overhaul legislation, which McCain is spearheading.

On impeachment, Corallo said Thompson carefully studied the evidence before splitting his votes, "and he stands by it."

Pro-choice?

-- Abortion-rights supporter: Every time Thompson got the chance in the Senate, he voted with those who oppose abortion rights. But the social conservatives for whom abortion is a litmus test scrutinize every bit of a politician's record -- and Thompson's provides some fodder for opponents to question the depth of his opposition to abortion rights.

On candidate surveys in 1994 and 1996, he answered that he favored abortion always being legal in the first trimester of pregnancy and opposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution "protecting the sanctity of human life."

According to the Nashville Tennessean, Thompson included a handwritten clarification with the latter response, reading, "I do not believe abortion should be criminalized. This battle will be won in the hearts and souls of the American people."

After Thompson again intimated, during a Fox News appearance this month, that he'd oppose criminalizing abortion, conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote that Thompson "came close to alarming his pro-life constituency."

Thompson will point to support from leading anti-abortion groups to neutralize this line of attack. He was endorsed by National Right to Life in both of his Senate campaigns and has a 100 percent voting record from the group, Corallo pointed out, asserting: "That's what counts. How did he act?"

David Mark contributed to this report.
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