Fred D. Thompson took his bid for the White House to the campaign trail Thursday, vowing to compete aggressively for the support of Iowans and pitching steady, experienced and conservative leadership.
"I still have the same common-sense conservative beliefs I did when I ran in 1994," the former senator said in a speech at a Des Moines conference center, a not-so-subtle reference to criticism about the changing positions of his main Republican rivals, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
"The preseason is over," he declared. "Let's get on with it."
Thompson begins at a big disadvantage in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses, trailing Romney and several others in establishing an organization here, but his advisers believe it is a contest he cannot skip. They plan to target the conservative base here, a group that has consistently expressed frustration with its presidential choices this year.
"A lot of conservative voters have been holding their nose a little bit throughout the course of this campaign, trying to find a place where they were comfortable," one senior Thompson adviser said. "Our message to them is 'You can breathe easier now.' "
In Thursday's speech, he pledged fidelity to a series of conservative principles -- limited government, an aggressive foreign policy and lower taxes -- and promised a commitment to securing the borders and appointing conservative judges.
His rivals are not about to give up their claim to the party's right wing. Giuliani consistently touts his tax-cutting record in New York City and has staked out a hard-line position on the Iraq war. Romney has recently seized upon the issue of illegal immigration, pledging a crackdown and accusing Giuliani of presiding over a "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants.
But Thompson's advisers believe that Romney and Giuliani are fundamentally flawed candidates: Romney has acknowledged "evolving" on core issues such as abortion, and Giuliani has a record of liberal positions on gun control, abortion and same-sex marriage that he has been forced to defend as he courts conservatives.
Romney has spent millions of dollars and built what his rivals concede is an impressive campaign operation in the state, much of it aimed at winning the Iowa straw poll last month.
"There's a recognition that we have to compete again, not only for conservatives but for all voters. We understand that and we're ready to do it," said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden. "Ultimately conservative voters will say, 'Who's the best person to lead this party, rebuild it and win in November?' Governor Romney has a competitive edge there." But Thompson advisers believe his upbringing in Tennessee might give him an advantage.
"He's a plain-spoken, Southern country lawyer and he speaks to the American people in a very direct way. That's going to be one of the keys to the success of this campaign," said Todd Harris, Thompson's communications director. "Iowa is at the center of America's heartland. Iowans share the same kind of heartland values that Fred Thompson was raised with."
Many on the right swooned when he first floated interest in the race in March. But in the months since, questions about his record on abortion and campaign-finance reform have dulled some of that enthusiasm.
A national anti-tax group Thursday proclaimed that his record has the "hallmarks of a pro-growth economic conservative," but the Club for Growth cautioned that the senator has an "enigmatic" record on tort reform and must explain his support for limits on political speech.
Thompson's advisers believe he will have to compete aggressively in several state contests, particularly South Carolina and Florida, both of which host critical early contests and could provide a firewall if he were to falter in New Hampshire.
"Thompson's goal is to launch a campaign that positions him as the true-blue conservative. That's the secret to being competitive in the early states," said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. "They need to take the bus south as soon as possible. Do well in Iowa, survive New Hampshire, and then he's on his home turf."
Once there, he will have to contend with Giuliani, who has shown surprising strength in South Carolina and has an overwhelming lead in Florida.
Campaigning there will take money, and it is unclear how well Thompson has done in his fundraising efforts. He raised about $3 million in the first month of his exploratory effort but will not have to report the rest of his finances until mid-October. Aides said that, as of late Thursday afternoon, roughly $300,000 had flowed into the campaign since his announcement on "The Tonight Show" Wednesday night.