Thompson act wears thin

Low-key campaign raises eyebrows

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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- It takes a "Law & Order"-style investigation to find Fred Thompson on the campaign trail.

The lawyer/actor-turned-presidential candidate has been raising eyebrows for months with his unconventional approach to Campaign 2008. He participated in Saturday's ABC News debate and Sunday's Fox News candidates forum, but unlike every other candidate stumping for votes in the precious few days between Thursday's Iowa caucuses and today's New Hampshire primary, Thompson has been remarkable for his low profile.

"He's done a terrible job of acting in this campaign," said Diane Owen, an associate professor of political science at Georgetown University.

There are no big Thompson rallies such as the ones Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama held in the Granite State during the weekend. There's no "Straight Talk Express" like John McCain, who has been leading the polls here. And Hollywood hasn't come to New Hampshire to campaign with Thompson, like Chuck Norris has with Mike Huckabee or Wilford Brimley for McCain or Viggo Mortensen for Dennis Kucinich.

There wasn't one public event listed in the Manchester Union Leader, the state's mega-politics paper, for Thompson during the weekend. And around media circles, his camp has put out word that he's not going to be campaigning much.

While most GOP candidates love to evoke the name of actor-turned-political icon Ronald Reagan, Thompson had the chance to become his 21st century embodiment. A lawyer and senator from Tennessee before he was an actor, Thompson had certified conservative credibility in a race that has shown a growing split in the GOP between religious and traditional conservatives. But ever since last year, when he appeared on "Fox News Sunday" to talk about a possible run for the presidency and later filed an exploratory committee, Thompson has been more anti-candidate than candidate.

He didn't lay the groundwork in Iowa and New Hampshire like other candidates, who seemingly have spent the past three years criss-crossing those states if not taking up residence there. He opted out of his "Law & Order" contract last spring but didn't take many of the big steps toward running until comparatively late in the process. After months of flirting with the idea, Thompson announced his candidacy Sept. 5 on "The Tonight Show." But he's been famously absent from doing the kinds of things that candidates do to win.

It's that kind of attitude -- out of the norm for presidential candidates -- that has made many veteran political watchers and journalists scratch their heads and wonder what he's doing.



"He hasn't seemed as engaged. He hasn't resonated with the people," said Shawn Parry-Giles, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Maryland. "The people thought he was boring. His motivations to run for presidency were in question. All of that is a bad recipe for a presidential campaign."

Richard Davis, a political science professor at Brigham Young University in Utah, said Thompson's career has given him name recognition but not much else.

"He was not the hero of the social conservatives that they thought he would be," Davis said.

Some said Thompson had been told there was an opening for a conservative candidate without the baggage of the others in the race. Others said he was surprised, almost forced, into the campaign after putting up trial balloons and getting a positive reaction. Although he did a minimal amount of campaigning compared to his GOP rivals, Thompson came in third in Iowa and was forced to go on to New Hampshire.

"The problem with coming in third in Iowa is that he had to stay in the campaign," Fox News Channel analyst Fred Barnes said after Sunday night's candidates forum in Manchester.

"I think he was sold a bill of goods," said Dan Schnur, a Republican media strategist and professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "A lot of people told him how easy it was going to be, that there wasn't a real conservative in the race, and he would show up and the support would flock to him."

That support, political observers said, isn't going to go to someone who isn't willing to campaign in the traditional style in New Hampshire and Iowa. In Sunday's forum, a focus group assembled by Fox News didn't rate Thompson's performance well -- mostly because he didn't seem to really want to be there.

"Voters have sensed a relative lack of enthusiasm for him," Schnur said.Schnur suggested Thompson's approach has a lot of drawbacks.

Moreover, he added, "If you're one actor on a multicharacter television program, you know you're going to get a chance to say your lines," he said. "But if you're one politician on a multicandidate debate stage, you can't wait for that moment to come to you. You've got to go out and grab it."
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