BEDFORD, N.H. — When Fred Thompson made his debut on the presidential stage here this week, he left some Republicans thinking he needs more work before his nascent campaign matches the media hype it's gotten in advance.
The former Tennessee senator with the baritone drawl showed up Thursday in New Hampshire, the site of the first primary voting, and gave a speech that lasted only nine minutes, skipping over hot-button issues such as Iraq and immigration to invoke platitudes about freedom and strength.
He left more than a few Republicans disappointed.
The star of the TV series "Law and Order" had won cheers the day before in South Carolina, another early-primary state, in his first trip there since he'd signaled that he'll soon jump into the race for the Republican presidential nomination. But South Carolina and Tennessee are neighbors, while New Hampshire tests whether Thompson's got more than regional appeal. So far, the answer's quite unclear.
``I plan on seeing a whole lot more of you,'' Thompson told about 200 New Hampshire Republicans who paid $50 each to hear him — and to benefit state Republican legislators.
He'd better, because many present came away decidedly under-whelmed.
``It was short,'' said Richard Heitmiller of Nashua. ``He's got a nice voice. But there was nothing there. He's for apple pie and motherhood. He's going to have to say what he's for.''
Heitmiller said he hadn't made up his mind about whom to support — way too early — and had come to learn more about this man he'd heard about but never seen.
``People want to get to know him. He hasn't been here, and he gives a nine-minute speech,'' he said dismissively. As Thompson exited, people started making their way to the doors midway through a reception.
``I told my wife we'd get home by 8. We'll get home a lot earlier than that,'' Heitmiller said.
``He looks good onstage, but I don't know if he has the gravitas,'' said Kathleen Williamson, a conservative Roman Catholic from North Weare. ``It seems like he's trying to win over conservatives, but I'm still not sure he has the credentials. I'm worried he's trying to get by on his celebrity.''
Thompson's slow tease about running has drawn admiring glances from voters who perhaps are ready for a new face.
He's fed speculation that he's filling a conservative void created because each of the other top-tier Republican candidates — Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney — fails at least one litmus test on issues ranging from abortion to immigration to tax cuts.
Thompson shot up in several recent polls of early-voting states, placing second in two Iowa surveys and leading the pack in South Carolina. But he faces a tougher challenge in New Hampshire, where he hasn't managed better than a tie for third, and often fourth, in recent polls.
One reason might be that his appeal is regional and doesn't extend to New England. Another could be that he hasn't yet spelled out why he should be the nominee, and hasn't done the face-to-face courting that voters here demand.
``We'll see what happens if he starts campaigning here. It's easy to like a candidate in the abstract,'' said Fergus Cullen, the New Hampshire state Republican chairman.
Cullen dismissed the widespread notion that Thompson is gaining because conservatives can't unite behind any other candidate. ``We have a number of strong candidates. There is no ideological hole in the party that needs to be filled.''
Rather, he said, Thompson is benefiting at least temporarily from his celebrity status. Also, he's getting into the contest just as voters are wondering whether there are more choices out there.
But, he added, Thompson still has to make the sale — and he needs a sales team of campaign aides to help him navigate the state.
``It's not too late to get in,'' Cullen said. ``But most of the key activists here are already committed to other candidates. Any staff person worth having is already employed. It is too late to get that.''
McClatchy Newspapers 2007