CAPE CORAL, Fla. – To many GOP primary voters, Fred Thompson is the guy they want to be Mr. Right. He looks the part, sounds it and is, most of the time, saying all the right things to win their hearts.
To a party that has been looking for the right suitor for the better part of a year, Thompson appears to represent the closest thing to that combination of conservative principles and just-folks style for which Republicans have demonstrated a fancy.
Following Thompson on his two-bus caravan as he systematically hits most of this monster of a state’s major media markets, the hunger is evident:
About 200 workers and stay-at-home moms in downtown Jacksonville on a Thursday morning, a thousand or so retirees mid-day at The Villages retirement mecca in central Florida, and 300 more suburbanites down the road at the Disney-created community of Celebration near Orlando that night.
The pattern was much the same Friday, with crowds, oblivious to the searing heat, thronging around Thompson, hoping for handshakes, autographs or just a close glimpse at the object of their affection.
At a park in this city, just across the Caloosahatchee River from Ft. Myers on the state’s Gulf side, Thompson won loud applause for his denunciations of profligate federal spending, “the so-called immigration bill” and his disdain for “people apologizing for the United States of America.”
Still braving the heat while most of the crowd had decamped to the air conditioning of their cars, Jan Miller said he liked what he heard.
“He’s right on border security and not wanting to bail out of Iraq,” said Miller, an Ohio transplant now living in Ft. Myers Beach.
But for Miller it was as much Thompson’s style as his substance that struck a chord.
“He’s down to earth, he doesn’t put himself above anybody,” he said.
Man of the people
Miller wasn’t alone.
Conversations with Floridians at every Thompson stop found them coming back to the Tennessean’s down-home demeanor.
“He didn’t seem like a smooth talker,” said Rex Wagner, a cabinet maker in Jacksonville.
“He talks in a style that everybody can understand,” observed Phil O’Donnell, “just lays it on the line.”
To these Republicans, Thompson’s syrupy stump-style is endearing.
Discussing his departure from the Senate, Thompson said that he did so “one step ahead of the undertaker and two steps ahead of the sheriff — as a politician these days, that ain’t bad.”
Making the point that he won’t tell one group of voters something different from another, Thompson said, “My philosophy does not depend on my geography.”
And what does the country need to do in the years to come? “We’ve got to learn to skip and chew gum at the same time.”
But Thompson himself has to do something similar in the midst of a campaign that he entered long after the other candidates had begun running.
For all the adoring crowds he drew and folksy one-liners he got off, Thompson showed at times why his campaign launch last week wasn’t very smooth and why it may have been much worse had he begun in July as originally expected.
Taping a television interview for a Tampa-area news channel after his appearance at the Villages, a still-sweaty Thompson offered little when asked two questions by the St. Petersburg Times’ Adam C. Smith that nearly every presidential candidate who has touched down on Florida soil this year has faced – property insurance and Terri Schiavo.
He effectively punted on both, saying that he knew that the hurricane-induced insurance crunch is “an issue,” but that he didn’t “know enough about it yet.”
The matter of whether Congress was right to intervene to save the life of Schiavo was even worse, as Thompson said didn’t &lquo;know all the facts surrounding that case.”
“That's going back in history,” he added of the 2005 controversy, forcing his campaign to later plead with The Associated Press to change their characterization of Thompson’s answer from not having an opinion to not offering one.
For conservatives, it was another in a string of Thompson statements since his entry into the race that may give them pause. Since his launch 10 days ago, Thompson has indicated that Osama bin Laden should get “due process,” stated that he doesn’t support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and admitted that he doesn’t belong to a church at home in McLean, Va.
Comfortable with 'Fred'
But the voters who came out to see Thompson in Florida – clutching his image on the cover of magazines ranging from Newsweek to Newsmax – didn’t seem at all bothered by any such considerations. They were just tickled to finally have Fred, as most casually called him, finally in their sights.
For them, Thompson has the potential to offer the long-sought marriage between Rudy Giuliani’s star power and Mitt Romney’s more conservative views.
Beyond that, there is also a difficult-to-describe comfort level that Republican voters seem to have with Thompson, even the first time they see him in person.
“They think they know him from beforehand,” is how campaign adviser Rich Galen put it.
In his speech in Jacksonville, Thompson portrayed it as “a special relationship with an awful lot of folks in the country.”
It came, he said, “because they look into my heart and they know that they’re looking at a fella who doesn’t have anything to lose but to tell the truth about the situation in Washington.”
But plainly it is derived another way. Describing why he likes Thompson, Cape Coral mayor Eric Feichthaler, who introduced the candidate, talked up their shared working class roots and praised Thompson’s discussion of immigration and spending.
But then he couldn’t help but blurt out – “and I liked him in Die Hard 2.”
The mayor was mostly kidding, but Thompson’s fame is clearly what helps drive the familiarity.
Yet his celebrity is only what fuels the curiosity. It’s what he says when they show up to hear him that makes them think he could be the one.
After all, could a nice-but-strait-laced guy like Mitt Romney pull off a dodge as old as the hills of Tennessee the way Thompson did?
When asked at two different stops in this football-crazed state if he was pulling for the “Gators or Vols” at Saturday’s match between the University of Florida and the former senator’s home-state school, Thompson drawled, “I’ve got friends who are Gators and friends who are Vols. And I always stick with my friends.”