WASHINGTON — He'd regularly joke that after working in Washington politics, "I often long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood." But Fred Thompson couldn't keep away for long.
Nearly five years after leaving the Senate, the 65-year-old movie actor and "Law and Order" star from Tennessee is now a candidate in the crowded race for the Republican nomination for president.
"I'm running for president of the United States," Thompson said Wednesday. "... I decided that it was time for me to step up. So I did."
Thompson announced his decision, after a lengthy testing-the-waters period, during a taped late-night appearance Wednesday on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno. He was due to post a video on his Web site just after midnight Thursday in which he tells more about his reasons for deciding to run.
Starting Thursday, Thompson will spend the next week in the key early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
He's betting he can make up for lost time and convince skeptics in his party that he's neither lazy nor underprepared, but instead methodical and getting in just as voters are ready to pay attention.
"I don't think people are going to say, you know, 'That guy would make a very good president, but he just didn't get in soon enough,'" Thompson told Leno about his delayed entry.
Still, all of his major competitors have spent months courting voters, raising money and refining their stances.
"He could catch fire and take off," said Cary Covington, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. "But, historically, candidates who rely in Iowa on television ads and commercials don't do well. It takes organizing at the grassroots level and that takes time, and Thompson just doesn't have much of that time left now. He can't afford any mistakes. He has to hit hard and charge hard and really be running full blast."
Thompson has strengths going in. He's got celebrity and a homespun appeal as well as experience in national politics. He's also got a socially conservative message and reputation that could appeal to his party's base.
So far, Republicans have yet to solidify around any single competitor, be it former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or any of the others.
Recent polls in early primary states show Thompson in second or third place among GOP candidates, in some combination with Giuliani and Romney.
His vulnerabilities: He is perhaps tens of millions of dollars behind top rivals in campaign cash, has already had multiple staff turnovers, and many party activists across the country already have committed to other candidates. He has yet to specify what policies he would pursue. He also acknowledged this year that he had lymphoma, which is in remission.
His record — as a senator, a lobbyist, even as the young minority counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee who asked the question in public that revealed the existence of President Nixon's secret tapes — will be fair game in the debate about his accomplishments, his inconsistencies and his shortcomings.
Yet with his announcement, Thompson is off to mixed reviews.
Thompson's timing allowed him to avoid participating, literally by a few hours, in a televised Wednesday night candidate debate in New Hampshire. But his campaign bought time on Fox to air a 30-second Thompson spot during the debate.
That prompted New Hampshire's Republican Party chairman to accuse Thompson of wanting it both ways.
"I think New Hampshire voters and voters elsewhere would be forgiven for thinking he's skipping the debate because he isn't ready to have a substantive debate on the issues," chairman Fergus Cullen said. "And voters also could be forgiven for thinking, 'Well, what the heck was he doing all summer if he wasn't preparing?' There's a genuine interest here in Senator Thompson and curiosity. But he seems to be getting off on the wrong foot."
Thompson's communications director Todd Harris defended the strategy. "We're not skipping debates," Harris said. "We're going to be present at a number of debates" in New Hampshire and other states in the weeks and months ahead.
"It's a question of how we've decided to roll out our campaign. And this is how we've decided to do it.
"Jay Leno is one of the highest-rated shows on television, and Senator Thompson's message is going to be about bringing the country together under a banner of mainstream conservative change," Harris said. "You can't talk about unifying the country without talking to the entire country."
Harris describes Thompson as "the best communicator of the mainstream conservative message" in the GOP. "And our party needs a good communicator at a time when many in the public are not as high on the Republican Party as they used to be," he said.
If there's something familiar-sounding about a Republican actor candidate who gets into a high-profile race late, forgoes early challenges to debate and instead makes his splash on Leno, that's because that's what Arnold Schwarzenegger did in 2003 when he ran for governor of California — and won — in the recall election of Democrat Gray Davis.
Thompson has been bringing on members of the communications team that got Schwarzenegger elected and kept him in office: Harris, who also advised former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and former California Republican Party communications director Karen Hanretty.
But the parallels go only so far, said Jack Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.
Schwarzenegger was a bigger star. He didn't have a primary election to contend with. He never billed himself as a social conservative. He had to convince voters only that he could run a state, not a country. And general voter dissatisfaction lay with a Democratic, rather than Republican, establishment. Schwarzenegger's career prior to acting was weightlifting. Thompson's was politics and law.
Talking to reporters last month in Indianapolis, Thompson mentioned three presidents he admired: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and a fellow ex-actor, Ronald Reagan.
"He was the greatest communicator of all time, but I admire him not because of any techniques he had, but because he believed so strongly in conservative principles," Thompson said of Reagan. "He was believable because he believed. The camera doesn't really lie about things like that."