Thompson Struggles As Launch Looms

With his summer-long windup to a presidential campaign finally nearing an end, actor-politician Fred Thompson defended his late entry into the race and said the continued interest in him is a reflection of Republican dissatisfaction with the rest of the field.

But, in a Politico interview, Thompson also served notice that at least one measure of political strength -- fundraising -- is likely to look a bit wan when the next disclosure reports are released, reflecting a sluggish summer.

"I imagine we will fall off some in July and August and have a great September," Thompson said, boasting he "would compare what we've been able to do in a few months with what others have done in their first few months, whenever that was."

Thompson's plunge into the race, which aides once indicated would happen around the Fourth of July and is now planned for after Labor Day, comes amid increasingly public hand-wringing by supporters over whether he has waited too long to capitalize on the surge of interest that accompanied reports of a potential candidacy more than five months ago.

Beyond the mere anxiety of the waiting game, he has suffered through a summer of stumbles. In a short period of time, Thompson has already been hit with the sort of problems that it takes most campaigns months longer -- not to mention a full-blown candidacy -- to accrue.

And some operatives close to the Thompson campaign continue to express concern about staff turmoil and organizational shortcomings. The rumblings are raising questions more broadly among Republican insiders about whether Thompson has the discipline and zeal to wage a winning campaign -- much less craft a message that can distinguish himself from the current crop of GOP contenders.

A rowdy reception, a muted message
The putative candidate -- looking noticeably thinner while chatting in a hotel conference room filled with aides and local backers -- said that he is ready to answer the skeptics and that there is still plenty of time for a candidacy to take flight.

"Historically, people don't get in this soon," Thompson pointed out. "The question is about the fact that everybody else is out there and [they] have spent all this time and all this money -- and I still clearly have a shot. That ought to answer that question in and of itself."

But he acknowledged his circumstances put him in a situation where nearly everything must go right over the next several months if he is to make the transition from the potential candidate with lots of buzz to a real candidate with lots of votes.

"We're doing in a few months what other people have done in a much, much longer period of time," he said. "It's just that simple. We don't get the luxury of making adjustments along the way."

Thompson's appearance here at a gathering of Midwestern Republicans highlighted a curious tension at the center of Thompson's bid -- cheers and frenzy on one hand, uncertainty and stumbling on the other -- that makes it hard to tell how serious the endeavor really is.

The former "Law & Order" star is being virtually begged into the race by those who see him filling an opening for a charismatic, mainstream conservative from the South not being claimed by the current contenders. There were "Run Fred Run" lapel stickers being distributed, a few "Thompson 2008" signs in the audience and, when he was introduced at the dinner, even some lusty shouts of "FRED, FRED, FRED!" during the prolonged standing ovation.

But this was followed by a speech delivered in a somber, even flat tone, with note cards but no prepared text. He warned that the country is on track to become "a weaker, less prosperous, more divided nation than what we have been."

Were these downbeat warnings intended to separate himself from the record of an unpopular Republican president, or a way to show that he is more seriously reckoning with reality than other GOP candidates? And if so, what specifics can Thompson offer to put the country on a better track?

There were few answers. One local attendee said she liked what she heard but politely expressed the views of many in the audience. "If he, and should he ... would he please let us know what he is going to do?" Mary Walters asked.

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