WASHINGTON — Fred Thompson hasn't spent a dime campaigning. Hasn't participated in three nationally televised debates. He won't even declare his candidacy for another several weeks, if then.
Yet new polls in recent days show the former Tennessee senator and actor bursting into the top tier for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. For example, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published Thursday put Thompson second, with 20 percent support among Republicans, behind only former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who had 29 percent. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain tied for third at 14 percent.
A Thompson juggernaut? Maybe.
But the surge of support might say as much about the state of the party as it does about the man. Because the party is restless for a new leader in the coming post-Bush era and far from ready to rally behind any of the choices it's seen so far.
"It's churning," said Maurice Carroll, the director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Connecticut. "Nobody is dominating, and a number of Republicans feel they could do better and want a bigger field."
The immediate reason the party hasn't rallied behind one candidate is that the conservative base finds flaws with each in the top tier: Giuliani supports abortion rights; McCain supports an immigration plan that would let illegal immigrants remain in the United States; Romney once supported abortion and gay rights.
More fundamentally, the Bush presidency is leaving the party in some turmoil, with no heir apparent and torn by disappointment and even anger over such issues as management of the Iraq war, illegal immigration and federal spending.
"We're having a debate right now on a lot of big issues and where our party is going to go," said Kevin Madden, an aide to Romney. "It's fluid. Nobody is going to decide right now. It's still the candidate-shopping season."
"We've got a group of nomadic Republicans grazing," McCain aide Brian Jones said. "They're still forming opinions."
A new survey released Wednesday by Quinnipiac showed Giuliani with the support of 27 percent of likely primary voters nationwide, followed by Thompson and McCain, with 15 percent each, and Romney with 10 percent.
Other polls also show Thompson faring well since he announced earlier this month that he'd form an exploratory committee in preparation for a likely campaign.
An average of all seven national polls in June, compiled by realclearpolitics.com, showed Giuliani with 26.1 percent, Thompson with 16.6 percent, McCain with 15.9 percent and Romney with 10.4 percent.
Giuliani, McCain and Romney have been campaigning full time for months, while Thompson will make his first campaign trips to New Hampshire and South Carolina at the end of this month and is expected to declare his candidacy in Tennessee around the Fourth of July.
Some of his standing in the polls is due to his fame as an actor; he starred in the TV show "Law and Order" as well as several hit movies. National polls this early often reflect fame as much as support.
Thompson doesn't fare as well in the early battleground states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where voters are more familiar with the field.
And he hasn't faced the scrutiny applied to his rivals.
"Thompson is being touted as the new Ronald Reagan," said Susan Pinkus, the director of the Los Angeles Times poll. "All of his allure, though, is on an untested candidate who has not had to endure the rigors of a national high-profile campaign or spar with his rivals in three Republican debates."
The Times poll this week found Giuliani at 27 percent, Thompson at 21 percent, McCain slipping to 12 percent and Romney at 10 percent.
Romney aide Madden chalked up those results to fame, noting that Giuliani is nationally known for his role after the 2001 terrorist attacks, McCain is known from running for president in 2000 and Thompson benefits from his acting career.
"Our challenge right now is we're still in the introduction phase," he said, adding that Romney's support has increased in the early primary states as people have come to know him.
McCain spokesman Jones said the senator's support had remained relatively stable, despite what he called the "challenging issue environment" of an immigration proposal that's unpopular with conservatives.
While Thompson's candidacy is shaking up the young race, Jones said it was just one of what would be many bumps on the road to the nomination.