INDIANAPOLIS - "I'm with Fred" enticed the placards set up here at the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference at a table touting the non-campaign of actor, ex-senator and possible presidential candidate Fred Thompson.
In exchange for a $250 check, the faithful and the curious could enter a private room to meet Thompson, a political insider playing the outsider who might be the nation's next Ronald Reagan — or might not even run.
Some walked away from the closed-door fund-raiser on Saturday afternoon convinced.
"He looks presidential," said Jeff Cardwell, 47, a conservative Christian lumber and hardware retailer. "He talks about going back to the basics. Putting God first in our country. I think he's the person everybody looks to as being the true conservative of our party."
But many of the party activists attending the conference from a dozen heartland states said they were seriously turned off by what they saw as Thompson's ambivalence about whether to run months after other presidential hopefuls have been hard at it.
Thompson's testing-the-waters bit is about to come to an end - supporters expect an announcement early next month - but here in the Midwest some said he's waited too long.
"You can't wait to get a mandate from the people," said Elizabeth Morris, a community publisher and councilwoman in Dearborn County, Ind. "Either a person has a fire in the belly or they don't."
Said her husband, Gary, an investment banker: "He's already shown that inability to act quickly and decisively. That's the way it comes off."
Joan Wright, 79, wondered if Thompson were lazy or egotistical.
"I'm afraid he does have the power because of recognition," she said, referring to Thompson's many television and movie roles. " 'Law & Order' is on every day of the week, a couple times. He's still playing games. These other guys are out there trying. I think at some point he ought to, too."
Still, there was an undeniable curiosity and affection for Thompson at the gathering.
Crowds swarmed him, men grinned like boys and ladies blushed as he entered the ballroom of the Indianapolis Convention Center where he gave a keynote speech. Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., gave a testimonial in which he told Thompson that once, when Thompson had smiled at him during a difficult time on Capitol Hill, he'd given Buyer the courage of his convictions.
Tax attorney Michael Griffin, 33, was revved up after shaking the celebrity's hand. "He's got a great demeanor," Griffin said.
But Griffin wouldn't commit on whether he'd support Thompson. "I'm thinking about it," he said. "But until he declares and begins really taking some positions it'll be hard to know."
At 65, Thompson, who, at 6-foot-6, towers over just about everyone, looks grayer and thinner than his television persona — perhaps a byproduct of a diagnosis of lymphoma that is now in remission, or perhaps because his youngest child is less than a year old.
"He's aged a little from some years ago," Griffin said. "But as I see him mingling through the crowd, he gave me a strong handshake and he was very vigorous."
In a gentle, 25-minute speech Saturday night, Thompson touched on what he sees as some key issues - having faith in God and the traditions of the nation, securing the borders and taking Islamic radicalism seriously - but his remarks were only broad strokes.
The Alabama native, who was raised and schooled in the law in Tennessee before working on Capitol Hill and making a mark in the Watergate investigation, also reminisced with his deep, sweet drawl about his parents, and of the surprises and joys of marrying and parenting for a second time later in life.
He assured the strangers in the Midwestern audience that he has lots in common with them. "I don't know about the particulars, but it all has to do with the love of country and the kind of world we want to leave behind."
He got a standing ovation and hollers of approval from many.
"I was fairly certain. Now I'm convinced," said Steven Zammito, a construction worker from Indiana. Zammito said Thompson didn't inspire excitement "but he came across as sincere."
Bill Ruppel, an Indiana legislator, said Thompson is noticeably ramping up his energy level and becoming more comfortable talking issues. He'd seen Thompson just three weeks earlier in Philadelphia and "he was a hell of a lot better here. There, he was almost stiff. If he'd come off like he did in Philadelphia, I think he would have lost a lot of people tonight."
But Jonathan Binkley, a retiree from Ohio, read Thompson's body language differently.
"He's comfortable with himself, but I don't sense the fire," Binkley said. "Despite the early flush of support, I think he's going to fade."
2007 McClatchy Newspapers