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 a 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.
Not much ado about running
For the interview, Thompson sported a navy three-button, pin-striped suit without the tie he’d don later for his address to the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference. He was friendly enough in offering a seat -- “We got it all warmed up for ya” -- but didn’t seem overly enthusiastic when answering the obligatory questions about his state of affairs. He wasn’t overly defensive in tone, but neither did he seem to get terribly animated about much of anything.
Asked about the departure of some top aides before he’s even announced, including the person initially tasked with running his organization, Thompson called them “normal organizational developments,” arguing that it was only natural that there would be some initial stumbles given the demands of putting together a national campaign on the fly.
There has been a spotlight focused on his every move since first acknowledging he was considering a bid in March, Thompson noted, observing that he now lacked any sort of “solitude.”
“Everything we do is under intense scrutiny. And that’s fine,” he said with a shrug.
Some of that scrutiny is coming from his own sympathizers.
Glenn Reynolds, the influential University of Tennessee law professor who blogs as “Instapundit,” wrote of the campaign-in-waiting last week: “Looking shaky? They've had a rough summer; it'll be interesting to see how they do over the next month or so.”
Randy Pollard, chairman of the Fayette County, Ill., GOP, the head of the state’s group of county Republican chairs and a likely “Fred-head,” said Thompson’s moment hadn’t passed. “I think it is passing, though,” Pollard said outside one of the meetings here.
Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.), Thompson’s top supporter in a state that is key to the campaign’s early-state strategy, “sighed audibly” when asked by a reporter from the Greenville News about his would-be candidate’s indecision.
"Yeah, I admit to that; I've got a little frustration," Barrett told the paper in a Sunday article. "I've wanted him out sooner, but he's working.”
Team Fred's follies
Another Capitol Hill backer, Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), conceded that there had “been some little hiccups” this summer.
But in a chat following his presentation to Thompson of a shiny-blue Colts hat to wear for a photo op and before introducing his candidate at the dinner, Buyer argued the Tennessean was well-positioned for “the sprint” that lies ahead. The advantage of holding out, Buyer argued is that “he’s being courted.”
At the same time, Thompson must settle internal turmoil.
A Thompson source, requesting anonymity to speak candidly, voiced concern that Team Fred is still not ready for a the pressure cooker of a presidential campaign.
"There is no question that from a political standpoint, the testing-the-waters committee is right where it needs to be,” this person said, “but from a personnel standpoint, it's a completely different story."
"You have some gaping holes in the communications shop and in the overall management at the committee.”
Thompson fired his communications director Linda Rozett, a former chamber of commerce official, last week, displeased by her lack of campaign experience. Thompson’s spokeswoman, Burson Snyder resigned two weeks ago, unhappy with a diminished role and uneasy about the disorder in the campaign structure. And Thompson's first campaign manager, Tom Collamore, was viewed as lacking the necessary political chops for a White House run and forced out.
Asked if the installation of Bill Lacy, Thompson’s close friend and the strategist from his first Senate race, had brought order to the operation, the Thompson source said, “It hasn’t yet.”
One person familiar with the day-to-day operation indicated that there could be belt-tightening measures taken to curb the outbound flow of cash from Thompson’s testing-the-waters committee.
After raising just under $3.5 million in June -- about a million-and-a-half less than his advisers initially predicted they’d haul in -- Thompson indicated that the financial report he’ll file along with the other presidential hopefuls at the end of third quarter in September may not dazzle the doubters.
Asked if he was happy with where he was financially, Thompson quickly replied, “Never.”
Urged to elaborate, he said, “Because there’s more to be done.
“You can never be satisfied financially. Realistically, are we where we ought to be? Yes, I think we are.”
Waiting on a date
Shadowing all this is the main question: When, finally, will Thompson actually get in the race?
“We’re coming to the conclusion of that,” he said. “We’ll be making a statement as to our intentions in the not-too-distant future.”
Asked if it would be just after Labor Day (Sept. 3), he said he didn’t “want to narrow it down too much” but allowed that he “wouldn’t be shocked if you turned out to be right.”
But previous indications that he’d announce the day after the holiday to participate in the Fox News-sponsored GOP debate in New Hampshire on Sept. 5 now appear to be inoperative. One Thompson source wouldn't reveal exactly when the launch would come but conceded that Thompson's presence at the forum was "very unlikely."