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Acting fame hasn't eased the campaign for Fred Thompson

He faces doubts, not just in N.H., on his enthusiasm

Presidential hopeful Fred Thompson, former senator from Tennessee, left after a campaign stop Monday in Dover, N.H. Presidential hopeful Fred Thompson, former senator from Tennessee, left after a campaign stop Monday in Dover, N.H. (JIM COLE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Kranish
Globe Staff / November 11, 2007

ROCHESTER, N.H. - As Fred Thompson admired rifles at a gun factory this week, some of the workers eyed him with a mixture of curiosity and bafflement. One employee, asked when he had learned that the actor and former US senator from Tennessee was running for president, responded, "Fifteen minutes ago."

Two months after Thompson made his belated entry into the Republican presidential race amid talk that he would transform the contest, his visibility is minimal among voters in New Hampshire. Even some second-tier GOP candidates are attracting more attention than the star of "Die Hard 2" and "Law & Order."

Thompson's failure to take off among Republican voters nationally has been even more pronounced in New Hampshire, where the candidate has spent parts of just five days and where his campaign has committed few resources and has run no ads. Since becoming an official candidate in September, Thompson has dropped in New Hampshire polls from third to as low as sixth place, in a new Globe survey that put his support at just 3 percent.

His competitors, meanwhile, have aggressively courted New Hampshire voters for months. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, for example, is a part-time New Hampshire resident who has been in every corner of the state and has spent heavily on television advertising.

Thompson's visit to the gun factory reflects his poor visibility in the state. One worker, Stephen Balcewicz, said he had not heard much about Thompson and was hoping to hear him answer questions. But Thompson left after giving a speech focusing on his support for gun rights.

The reception the candidate received at the factory contrasted sharply with an appearance here last month by Senator John McCain of Arizona, who was applauded and cheered when he promised workers to "bring Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell and shoot him with one of your products." McCain is so well known in New Hampshire that strategists in rival campaigns jokingly refer to him as the state's governor.

Among the other Republican contenders, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has picked up his campaigning pace, US Representative Ron Paul of Texas has begun advertising on television, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has benefited from increased national recognition. That has left Thompson in a scramble for support in New Hampshire that is more difficult than his campaign had anticipated.

Nationally, Thompson has also faced relentless questions about his mixed success in appealing to religious conservatives and about his effort and his enthusiasm for campaigning. Thompson's national support has dropped from 26 percent to 15 percent in the last two months, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday.

Thompson insists he is comfortable with his standing and his strategy, which relies less on New Hampshire than do those of some other candidates.

He said he stood by his decision to start his campaign in September, even though that gave his opponents an enormous head-start in fund-raising, name recognition, and advertising. He jumped into the race on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno,' instead of attending a debate in New Hampshire, which upset the state's Republican leaders, and he has not conducted the kind of town hall meetings that are a campaign staple.

"I don't spend a lot of time looking back," Thompson said Monday as his sport utility vehicle barreled down a highway from Nashua to Manchester. Then, in a reference to Romney, who had loaned his campaign $17 million of his own money by Sept. 30, Thompson said some candidates are spending "out of their own pocket" and yet "I'm leading them in the national polls."

Bill Lacy, Thompson's national campaign manager, said that Thompson's standing will rise as the campaign airs television ads, which began Tuesday in Iowa and on the Fox News network. Lacy also said that Thompson's problems in New Hampshire are the result of a distinct set of financial and cultural factors.

"A large part of that is we just haven't committed a lot of resources to New Hampshire as of yet," Lacy said in a telephone interview. "Another part of the issue, frankly, is cultural. Typically, individuals from the South don't do quite as well in New Hampshire. Having said that, I feel that Fred's brand of conservatism ultimately has huge upside potential."

Lacy said the campaign's strategy is to do well in Iowa, which on Jan. 3 holds the first nominating contest, and to have enough resources in New Hampshire to benefit from an Iowa bump. The campaign then hopes for a strong showing in South Carolina, which votes Jan. 19 and which the campaign hopes will be a better fit for Thompson's Southern roots and conservative stands, followed by victories in other Southern states, including those voting among more than 20 states holding primaries on Feb. 5.

Asked how important Iowa and New Hampshire are to the campaign, Lacy said that Thompson needs "a strong enough showing early to justify in the minds of South Carolina Republicans that we are competitive."

Thompson's candidacy may come down to a huge bet on his ability to summon his skills as a television and movie actor to make a strong impression in the television commercials the campaign plans to air in states as their contests near. His campaign strategists believe that even a modest surge will help Thompson in a race that could be evenly split among four or five candidates.

"There hasn't been a lot of time to get the message out," said Liz Christoffersen, Thompson's New Hampshire campaign coordinator. "There still are probably a lot of people who don't know who Fred Thompson is and what he stands for."

Thompson's latest New Hampshire campaign swing began Monday at 8 a.m. and ended at around 5:30 p.m., but none of the three main events were geared to the general public.

The first was the traditional "Politics & Eggs" breakfast in Bedford, where Thompson spoke before a gathering of some of the state's movers and shakers and took several questions. The second event was limited to employees at the Smith & Wesson-owned Thompson/Center Arms Co. factory in Rochester, which bills itself as "America's Master Gunmaker" and has no relation to the candidate. The third event, held in a Dover restaurant, was titled "Meet Fred Thompson," but was geared to supporters. Thompson spoke only briefly.

Nonetheless, Thompson's gun factory stop demonstrated that he could make some headway if he does many such events. Matt Hurrinus, 38, of Rochester, said he had already heard McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton speak in person and had seen other candidates on television.

Hurrinus, an independent, said he was still undecided but indicated that Thompson's appearance could make a difference.

"It's helpful," he said. "It makes me feel more comfortable."

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com.

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