MIAMI - The anticipation over unofficial presidential candidate Fred Thompson's Florida debut lasted nearly 48 hours. His actual appearance at the Young Republican National Convention in Hollywood: about 26 minutes.
It all started Thursday afternoon when a "friend" of Thompson's alerted convention leaders - who alerted the media - that a "special guest" would arrive at 10:45 a.m.
Thompson arrived nearly an hour late. He gave an eight-minute speech with few policy details, and spent more than twice that amount of time shaking hands and posing for pictures. He did not take questions from reporters, though he said, "The waters are pretty warm," when asked if he were still testing a presidential bid.
"They do a great job keeping up the buzz about their campaign," said Jon Woodard, executive director of the Young Republicans National Federation.
Republicans Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney also campaigned Saturday in Florida, reflecting the state's newly elevated status in the 2008 presidential primaries. A new law makes Florida the first big state to vote Jan. 29.
Thompson came in second, behind only Giuliani, in the most recent poll of Florida Republicans by Quinnipiac University. He has hired a well-connected political consulting firm in Tallahassee to help him build his campaign.
"The fact that he's chosen to talk to the grass roots today is very exciting," said Todd Goberville, president of the Florida Young Republicans.
In his speech to about 350 activists at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa, Thompson defended the former White House aide whose 30-month sentence for perjury and obstruction of justice was recently commuted by President Bush.
Thompson helped raised money for the defense of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was convicted of lying to investigators pursuing the leak of a CIA agent's identity. Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton has criticized Bush's action even though her husband was also tried - and acquitted - of perjury when he was president.
"I didn't know Scooter Libby, but I knew an injustice when I saw one," said Thompson, perhaps better known for his role as a district attorney on NBC's "Law & Order" than for his stint as a U.S. senator from Tennessee. "If nothing else, we have patently convinced the Clintons that it really is a bad thing to lie under oath."
Most of Thompson's remarks focused on portraying America's strength as a military power, economic engine and beacon of democracy. Apparently referring to international criticism of the American invasion of Iraq, Thompson said to applause: "I'm getting tired of having to apologize for the U.S. in the world."
While none of the leading Republican contenders can lay claim to the party's conservative base because of their past or current positions on some key issues, Thompson's supporters say he has been true to GOP precepts.
"He comes from a place of core principles, and he operates on core principles and the first and primary principle for him is freedom," said well-known political strategist Mary Matalin, who introduced Thompson. "It's freedom. It's the core principle of our country and the core principle of conservatism."
As scrutiny of Thompson grows, more questions are cropping up about his career in Washington as a senator and lobbyist. National newspapers reported last week that an abortion rights group says it hired Thompson to lobby the White House on its behalf in 1991.
Asked about the reports, supporters insisted Thompson was the most faithful conservative in the race.
"Let me put it this way: What other choice do we have?" asked Paul Boyd, a 26-year-old Young Republican from Memphis, Tenn. "I think everyone has their flaws, and everyone has their peccadilloes . . . You have to get behind the person who most closely reflects what you believe."