Republican Presidential hopeful Fred Thompson, left, talks with fans as he attends a college football game in Gainesville, Fla. Saturday, Sept. 15, 2007. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)
In his month-old quest for the White House, Fred D. Thompson has already endured withering criticism from evangelical leader James Dobson, who observed that the former "Law & Order" star and onetime senator from Tennessee "has no passion, no zeal and no apparent 'want-to.' "
Old friends in Hollywood have been no kinder. Playing a laconic Thompson on "Saturday Night Live" over the weekend, comic Darrell Hammond seized on a story line that has already become conventional wisdom about his presidential bid. "I'm not sayin' I don't want to be your president, because I kinda do," Hammond drawled. "A little bit."
And after helping to create huge expectations for Thompson's late entry into the Republican race, the Washington establishment has proclaimed itself underwhelmed by his early performance. Columnist George Will compared him to New Coke and said his entry into the race was "more belly flop than swan dive."
This afternoon, when Republican presidential candidates gather in Dearborn, Mich., for their sixth major debate, much of the focus will be on the former actor and whether he can seize the moment, not only to distinguish himself from the rest of the field but also to rebut accusations that he is too lazy, too ill-prepared and too vague to be the GOP nominee.
"This is an opportunity for Fred Thompson to chip away at the rap his critics use against him by being very well prepared and very smooth," said Republican consultant Whit Ayres. "He needs to verify the hope and promise that many voters have placed in him."
"He has to overperform," said GOP strategist Alex Vogel, who described what he called a "huge buildup" for Thompson, followed by a "real or perceived letdown." The debate, Vogel said, "is either a real opportunity to kick things into the next gear or a real underperformance."
Before finally announcing after Labor Day, Thompson spent months "testing the waters," and the tease seemed to work. Polls suggested that the non-candidate could rocket to the top of the national surveys once he formally joined the less-than-inspiring field.
That didn't happen, and his performance on the stump since he announced on "The Tonight Show" has been uneven.
Thompson received warm welcomes from crowds, especially in South Carolina. But early on, he called Osama bin Laden more "symbolism" than true threat, and later he suggested that the terrorist should receive "due process." In Florida a few days later, he said he didn't know enough to comment about the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case.
Later in Florida, he said he might drill for oil in the Everglades -- not a popular position in a critical primary state. He angered conservatives by opposing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and acknowledging that he does not regularly attend church.
One rival gleefully began a "gaffe-a-day calendar," tracking Thompson's misstatements under the headline "A gaffe a day keeps th voters away."
Thompson's advisers say they are unfazed by the negative reviews. They say such commentary emanates from inside Washington and does not reflect the powerful connection Thompson is making on the trail.
"In the real world, Republican primary voters are looking for a conservative candidate who can win in November of 2008," said Thompson communications director Todd Harris. "They are far more concerned about that than they are the daily dribblings of the national press corps."
Richard Land, a leading voice in the Baptist community, compared Thompson to Ronald Reagan, who also endured often harsh criticism from dubious political elites early in his career.
"He may have Reagan's Teflon quality," said Land, who does not endorse candidates but is fond of Thompson. "Fred Thompson is a person who connects with average voters."
Land points as evidence to polls that show Thompson in a strong position nationally and leading or in second place in several early primary states. A Des Moines Register poll released yesterday shows Thompson ahead of everyone in Iowa except former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
It is also possible that Thompson's debate performance will be overshadowed by an increasingly hostile exchange between Romney and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. The two have sparred for days about taxes and spending -- issues likely to be front and center at the economics-oriented debate.
The spat continued yesterday, with a Romney e-mail to reporters titled "BIG CITY, BIG SPENDER: Mayor Giuliani Left New York City With 'Enormous Deficits. ' "
But Thompson's supporters recognize that today's debate, sponsored by MSNBC and the Wall Street Journal, will be their candidate's first big-time performance before a live national audience.
They have been prepping Thompson for days, giving him policy briefings at his Virginia headquarters and sending him out on the campaign trail with thick binders to study. There have been several mock debates aimed at getting Thompson used to the format. The last time he debated formally was almost 13 years ago.
Thompson's screen career should be a plus, aides say. He is used to the camera and is comfortable in front of an audience. And he's not unfamiliar with the presidential debate process. In 1996, he acted as Bill Clinton during debate preparation for GOP candidate Robert J. Dole.
"Fred needs to be Fred. That's my point of view," said one Republican supporter close to the campaign. "He will answer the questions. That's what he should do."
But other set the bar higher for Thompson.
"He needs to show he's in midseason form," said David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth, a conservative group. "People are expecting a lot more from him. He was talking about running a different kind of a campaign to tackle the big problems. It could be really interesting if he really does that."
Ayres said Thompson took a risk by waiting to enter the presidential race until after summer had ended. Doing so robbed him of the ability to work out campaign kinks when few people are watching, he said.
"That's one of the costs of waiting to enter," Ayres said yesterday. "You don't have a shakedown cruise with less publicity. The spotlight is shining brightly on all the credible candidates."
Asked whether poll numbers reflect a more positive assessment for Thompson than is reflected by the Washington establishment, Ayres said: "We'll see if that's true. That's a testable proposition."
Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.
© 2007 The Washington Post Company