Thompson Plays Catch-Up In N.H.

By: by Libby Copeland
By: by Libby Copeland

(Washingtonpost.com) If New Hampshire can offer Fred Thompson some advice, it's that he'd better start spending some time with New Hampshire. New Hampshire has a lot of questions for Fred and it doesn't like to be kept waiting.

Ah! Here he is, finally, pulling up to the farm in a big bus on this Saturday evening, making his way to the stage.

"I understand some people have been looking for me," Thompson tells a crowd of 200 or so folks who are here to eat chili and see the tall, the mysterious, the much-talked-about Fred Thompson. "I'm going to be here early and often."

But wait, Fred. New Hampshire wants to know: Isn't it too late to be early?

In the new timeline of presidential politics, in which 2007 is the new 2008, nobody quite knows just how fast the first primary in the nation will be locked up. Thompson has been here only one other time since he started considering a run for the presidency, while his opponents have been crisscrossing the state for ev er. And it doesn't escape the notice of New Hampshirites that Thompson could've been here last Wednesday if he hadn't decided to skip the Republican debate in Durham and declare his candidacy later that night on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

Skipping New Hampshire to hang out with Jay Leno! What a snub! Even his supporters say they were disappointed. One proud resident uses the phrase "slap in the face."

But enough of that for now. The former Tennessee senator is finally here. Thompson finishes a somewhat passionless speech about security and immigration and why this country shouldn't apologize to anybody, and descends to the crowd to mingle. And the serious, deliberative people of New Hampshire -- who are all too aware of the importance and responsibility of Being New Hampshire -- get to do the thing they're best at. They get to ask questions. Important questions.

Like:

"Does it feel good to be on the ground in New Hampshire, senator?" asks Doug Lambert, a conservative blogger.

"It does indeed," the former senator says, promising, once again, that he'll be visiting this great state "early and often."

Since this is the annual chili-fest put on by a Republican women's group, it is incumbent upon Thompson to meet some Republicans and have some chili. But it proves quite difficult for him to do either. He is enjoying -- and withstanding -- the glare that comes from being the new kid. The reporters stick to him like barnacles, and he is not able to move much or to actually converse with the people of New Hampshire at any length. He signs autographs, poses for pictures. "Bless your heart," he tells people, before the media swarm swallows him up again.

At last, Thompson makes his way to a large garage where food is being served. The air is steamy and chili-scented. He is sweating in his blue dress shirt and answering questions from the media.

One of the women standing by the vats of chili calls out: "Are you gonna let him eat?"

Nope. More questions.

Thompson mops his forehead with a paper towel.

Can you win the New Hampshire primary? a reporter asks. Thompson may be doing well nationally, but he's polling fourth here, where many activists already have committed to other candidates.

"Yes."

How?

"Working hard," Thompson says, adding that he plans to be in New Hampshire "early and often."

Early and often. But for months now, there are so many things about Fred Thompson that New Hampshire has been pondering. (The state likes to ponder. Likes to ask questions, meet a candidate a few times, ask some more, and ponder.) Questions! Like: After so much waiting to get in the race, can Thompson live up to the expectations surrounding him? Could anyone? And about this notion that he's lazy, that he doesn't want the presidency badly enough -- will that notion disappear or will it calcify? And can he attract activists in the state when his challengers have already been here and there and everywhere, reading "Owl Babies" to New Hampshire's preschoolers (that's Mitt Romney) and answering important questions from the people, like, Will you get Alzheimer's while you're in office? (John McCain).

Sure, there's still time, says Chuck Morse, a former state rep who's attending the chili-fest. "My home town of Salem -- there are still a few people that I consider activists that haven't signed up with anyone yet," Morse says.

Himself, he's with Romney.

Even Thompson's supporters know it: He had better start doing things New Hampshire's way. Meeting the people. Eating the chili.

"He's gotta stay here for awhile," says Herbie Geiler, who's wearing a Thompson T-shirt. "New Hampshire likes to shake hands with candidates multiple times."

And so during this, his maiden voyage since declaring, Thompson will oblige. The next day in Manchester, he drinks coffee with the locals in a restaurant ("That is good coffee," he says), sings "Happy Birthday" to a restaurant manager, visits a sports bar where patrons are getting ready to watch a Patriots game.

"Hello, Fred, welcome to New Hampshire again," says a woman, a Fred fan who actually noticed when he was here the last time.

"I'm going to be here a lot," he promises her.

He talks about tax cuts and illegal immigrants. He tells reporters that he has a nice life, a satisfying life, outside of politics, and that he's running not to pad his r?sum? but to serve his country.

"That's the kind of attitude that allows me to approach it with an open mind and a light heart and putting it in the hands of the people of New Hampshire and the American people," he says. "And the Lord's will be done."

Open mind? Light heart? The people of New Hampshire, like Americans everywhere, want their candidates to want it bad. They want to see them work. They want fire in the belly.

And always, there is looming the other question: Just how much did skipping the debate last week get Thompson off on the wrong foot in New Hampshire?

The New Hampshire Union Leader pronounced itself "less than pleased." Fergus Cullen, chairman of the state Republican Party, who broke with tradition by speaking out about the matter, called Thompson's behavior "insulting" and suggested that Thompson might be "the New Coke," all hype and no flavor. But plenty of folks say, eh.

"It all depends who you talk to," says David Dalrymple, a state rep who's backing Romney and attending the chili-fest with his wife, Janeen, who's undecided. "I thought it was a big deal. I think he snubbed New Hampshire."

"I disagree," Jeneen says.

"Well, there we go again," David says.

The thing is, while the activists of New Hampshire have been monitoring the presidential race with bated breath, many of the average voters of New Hampshire haven't. They may not care so much about what's happened up till now. They'll start to care once they start to pay attention. Dan Hughes, a retired developer and Thompson volunteer, says there is plenty of time for Thompson to get to know the state and win it over.

"It's still early, believe it or not," Hughes says. "It's really just the beginning."

In the meantime, just about all of New Hampshire says, Thompson will need to make good on his promise to keep coming back.

"That's got to happen, and not just for us, but for him," says Michael Castaldo of Dover. After all, Castaldo says, Thompson could stand to polish his stump speech.

If New Hampshire can offer Fred Thompson some advice, it is practice makes perfect, sir. Early and often.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company


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