Evangelical leader warms to a run by Thompson in ’08

The top rung of Republican presidential candidates has too many flaws for social conservatives to offer any candidate their full support, but former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) could be just the man to fill that hole, according to evangelical leader Richard Land.

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Religious and Ethics Liberty Commission, Land said Thompson would be a formidable candidate and more likely to shake up the top tier than an entry by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Thompson, the former senator-cum-television star who is considering a bid, is “a masterful retail politician” who could appeal to a wide swath of voters, including a currently dissatisfied group of social conservatives, Land said.

“Fred Thompson reminds me of a Southern-fried Reagan,” Land said. “To see Fred work a crowd must be what it was like to watch Rembrandt paint.”

Land, author of The Divided States of America? What Liberals and Conservatives Are Missing in the God-and-Country Shouting Match, may not be alone. During a recent drive to the Nashville airport, Land said, he saw a sign hanging in the back of a car that read, “Run, Fred, Run.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has said he would support such a bid, and just this week the Tennessee Senate unanimously passed a resolution renaming a state road for Thompson.

Part of this growing support base has more to do with the perceived weaknesses of the top tier than with Thompson’s strength.

The two current candidates who have been repeatedly praised by social conservatives, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), continue to trail far behind in most polls. What’s more, first-quarter fundraising reports likely will not provide a spark for either campaign. Huckabee reported about $500,000, and Brownback’s campaign estimated it raised $3 million.

Land cited a recent article in The Hill reporting that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was close to switching parties in 2001 — closer than most thought. As Land sees it, that story lends credence to his belief that many social conservatives view the maverick senator as too “unpredictable” to trust.

McCain has since denied such a crossover almost happened, despite corroboration from several Democratic lawmakers who said they were in talks with him during the time following the harsh 2000 Republican primary.

As for Rudy Giuliani, Land said, the former New York mayor carries too much baggage for social conservatives, not least of which is a history of marital infidelity and divorce.

“My ethics are not flexible enough to make character a central issue with Bill Clinton, and then turn around and not have it be a central issue with Rudy Giuliani,” Land said.

Of Giuliani’s impressive $15 million first-quarter haul, Land said, “I don’t think that money’s coming from social conservatives.”

The issues of marriage and adultery also give Land pause when it comes to Gingrich, the choice of many conservatives unhappy with the current field.

“I think Fred would make much more of a splash than Newt would,” Land said. “I wouldn’t vote for [Gingrich].”

Land said he has talked about Gingrich and Giuliani with some conservatives, who say they have received assurances from the candidates on a number of issues, including would-be nominations of so-called strict-constructionist judges.

But Land said he asks those conservatives how they can trust a candidate who has broken his marital vows in the past.

“He lied to them; what makes you think he won’t lie to you?” Land said he asked.

Thompson is on his second marriage. But as Land explained, it is the circumstances that matter to evangelical voters. Thompson’s “amicable” divorce at a relatively young age is significantly different to a so-called values voter than the breakups of Gingrich and Giuliani.

“That’s a very different circumstance than engaging in an adulterous affair while still married to your second wife,” Land said.

Land had little to say about former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who made headlines this week by raising a whopping $23 million in the first quarter. Pundits, however, have questioned whether social conservatives would vote for a Mormon.

Land’s interest aside, however, other evangelicals have not embraced the possibility of a Thompson run.

James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, recently told U.S. News and World Report that he didn’t think Thompson is a Christian. A spokesman for Dobson clarified that Thompson hasn’t appeared to embrace or make known a personal faith — a must if he wants to win with values voters.

On the other hand, Thompson was baptized by the Church of Christ in Tennessee, which Land considers a “pretty conservative” church.

Bob Davis, chairman of the Tennessee GOP and a longtime aide and friend of Thompson’s, said support for a Thompson run should not necessarily be viewed as dissatisfaction with the current field.

But Davis added, “Certainly, conservatives would see a home in Fred Thompson if they would just check his voting record.”

And despite the eye-popping amounts of money that candidates have been reporting this week, Davis said, Thompson does not have to worry about getting in late. His high profile as a politician and an actor gives him instant recognition.

“Just this last week, he talked to 6 million people every day on [the ABC radio show hosted by] Paul Harvey,” Davis said. “I don’t think any of the other candidates can say that.”