Another Hollywood star steps forward for GOP

Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) is contacting powerbrokers in the Republican Party to build support for a 2008 presidential campaign by his one-time protégé, former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.).

Baker, who Wednesday made a visit to the Senate, was asked by several Republicans about his involvement on Thompson’s behalf.

“He said, ‘I am making a few calls and I think it’s a great idea,’” said one Senate Republican who heard Baker discuss his efforts to advance Thompson’s prospects.

One Republican who discussed a possible bid with Thompson described his interest and Baker’s queries as “a friendly exploration.”

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Baker is a close friend and mentor to Thompson. Thompson broke into national politics in a big way in 1973 when Baker named him chief Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee. Thompson’s work helped to uncover the scandal that forced the resignation of President Nixon. Republicans believe Baker is coordinating efforts with Thompson, and view Baker’s emerging role as a sign that Thompson is taking steps toward launching a campaign.

Thompson has told allies in recent days that he is exploring seriously a bid for president in 2008 in response to what he has described as strong encouragement from Republicans dissatisfied with the current slate of candidates.
Thompson said one reason he is hesitant about running is his longtime friendship with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Thompson was one of only four Republican senators to endorse McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign and was an important ally in McCain’s effort to pass campaign-finance reform in 2002.     

Neither Thompson nor Baker could be reached for comment yesterday because both were traveling by plane.

Thompson, who retired from the Senate in 2002 to resume his acting career, has boosted his political profile lately. He is leading an effort to raise money for Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s legal defense fund and has called on President Bush to pardon Libby, who was convicted this week of making false statements and obstructing justice.

Thompson, who once chaired the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, is now best known to Americans for his role as District Attorney Arthur Branch on NBC’s “Law & Order” and his role in “The Hunt for Red October.” But he has remained active politically. Last year he appeared in ads supporting Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who won a tough race against former Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.). With Thompson’s help, Libby’s legal defense fund has raised close to $4 million. Thompson has said he will soon hold another fundraiser for Libby.

Rumors about Thompson running for president have filtered into Republican circles during the last several weeks. One lobbyist who recently asked Thompson about his plans said that Thompson merely smiled and replied, “I’m keeping my powder dry.”

Talk on the viability of a Thompson campaign became more voluble at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual Republican gathering marked by the strong conservatism of its attendees. Conservatives have questioned the ideology of each of the three Republican frontrunners: McCain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Supporters have begun comparing Thompson to President Reagan, a likeness bolstered by the latter’s acting career. Republican officials in Tennessee already have begun talking up Thompson.

“I think Fred Thompson is by far the one American who could bring this country together,” Tennessee GOP Chairman Bob Davis told the Chattanooga Times Free Press last week. “There are some good folks running right now, but naturally if a conservative Tennessean like Fred Thompson chose to run, I believe there would be a flood of support from across the country.”

One senior Republican strategist dismissed talk that McCain, Romney and Giuliani have too great a head start in fundraising and organization for Thompson to catch up. The strategist said Thompson has an opening since many Republicans have concerns about the other three hopefuls. Giuliani has raised concern among conservative Republicans because of positions in favor of abortion rights, gun control and gay rights.

Giuliani’s lead in the Republican primary is growing, although the Iowa caucuses are still 10 months away. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal national poll showed Giuliani leading McCain by 14 points, widening a five-point lead he held in December.

The same survey showed Romney garnering 8 percent support.

One Republican summarized some of his fellow party members’ concerns about the frontrunners:

“They’ve all got pretty significant issues,” he said. “For McCain, it’s age and temperament, for Romney, it’s flip-flopping, Mormonism, and inexperience. Then for Giuliani you got the talk of the all the personal baggage.”

Giuliani’s popular support has already driven a lot of interest among Republicans inside the Beltway, including influential players close to Bush. About 160 GOP lobbyists and business community representatives attended two meet-and-greet sessions with the former mayor recently. And former Bush Solicitor General Theodore Olson has signed onto his campaign, as have Bush pioneer fundraisers Bill Paxon, of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and Peter Terpeluk, of American Continental Group.