NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.—He's played an admiral, a White House chief of staff, even a president. But Fred Thompson has never played Hamlet. Until now.
The actor-politician is entering his third month of publicly debating whether to join the already crowded field that's campaigning for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination—to run or not to run—with no hint of when he might make up his mind.
That flirtation has created a buzz in the party and some surprisingly strong support in public opinion polls. But a recent speech to conservatives in Southern California drew mixed reviews. And some Republicans are starting to wonder how long the former senator from Tennessee can wait before he exhausts the sense of drama and intrigue and sees the parade pass him by.
"There is a point where it's too late. But I don't think we're close to that yet," said Mark Corallo, a Thompson adviser.
"It's too late when one candidate has emerged as an unbeatable front-runner. We're not even close to that. This is the most fluid field we've seen in my lifetime. There is no clear front-runner."
Corallo said Thompson, 64, had a timetable for a decision but wouldn't share it as he met with potential campaign staff and others at or near his home in McLean, Va., outside Washington. "We'll know (whether he's running) when he knows," Corallo said.
Other Republicans guess that Thompson will announce his decision in June or July, which would give him time to compete in a much-watched August straw poll in Iowa, the site of the first nomination contest next January.
He's already won some smaller and less contested straw polls, which are nonscientific tests of popularity among activists or party members.
At a party convention in Georgia's 9th Congressional District, he got 62 percent of the straw vote. At a California meeting, he led a straw vote with 25 percent.
He's also scoring in public opinion polls. An average of national polls shows him in third place, behind former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain, and ahead of the rest of the field.
"He's doing pretty darn well for someone who isn't even running yet," said Keith Appell, a Republican strategist who isn't aligned with any campaign.
The reason, Appell and others said, is that Thompson strikes them as the most consistently pure conservative on national security, limiting the size and cost of government, and social issues such as abortion.
Giuliani, who leads in national polls, supports abortion rights, a fact underscored anew this week when a rival campaign spread the old news that he'd contributed to abortion provider Planned Parenthood in the `90s.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, another candidate, converted to opposing abortion rights only recently, leaving some activists suspicious of his commitment. His wife also contributed to Planned Parenthood in the past.
And McCain still strikes some conservatives as too eager to buck the party.
"Thompson hits all the issues right down the middle. None of the other top candidates hit them all," said Bill Sinclair, a teacher from Newport Beach who walked out of the actor's recent speech to the Lincoln Club of Orange County wearing a Thompson button.
Sinclair and others also cite Thompson's skill as an actor, saying that gives him an edge in communicating akin to that of the late actor-politician Ronald Reagan.
Others think Thompson has more rehearsing to do—and perhaps needs better lines—if he's going to run.
"He needs to get more detailed. That was pretty general," said Richard Wagner, the president of the Lincoln Club of Orange County, an influential conservative group.
"I like Fred very much. Philosophically, I'm in sync with him," added Dale Dykema of Newport Beach, who nonetheless said Thompson disappointed him.
"He has some work to do. I was not as impressed as I was hoping to be. I was looking for a more inspirational talk. I thought he might be more Reaganesque."
"If people were disappointed," Thompson spokesman Corallo said, "it's because it wasn't a stemwinder storm-the-beach kind of speech. That was never his intention."
Another reason, he said, was that some in the audience expected Thompson to announce his candidacy, even though he'd ruled out such an announcement there.
"You could make a case that expectations were too high," he said.
But he said Thompson was working methodically, giving speeches such as the one in California last week, one in Connecticut on May 24 and one in Virginia on June 2, gathering feedback and working up to his decision whether to seek the biggest role of his life.
Name: Fred Dalton Thompson.
Age: 64, born Aug. 19, 1942, in Alabama.
Education: Bachelor's degree from Memphis State, law degree from Vanderbilt.
Career: Lawyer; prosecutor; counsel to Senate Watergate Committee, Foreign Relations Committee and Intelligence Committee; movie and TV actor.
Elected: To the Senate from Tennessee in 1994 and 1996.
Movies: "Cape Fear," "Die Hard 2," "Hunt for Red October," "In the Line of Fire," "No Way Out." Television: "Law and Order."
Family: Two young children with second wife, Jeri Kehn. Two grown sons from first marriage. Five grandchildren.
Ideology: Lifetime vote rating of 86 from American Conservative Union (100 is the top conservative score).
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