DES MOINES, Iowa — Fred Thompson hit the campaign trail Thursday, telling supporters that he's the Republican running for president who can best sell a traditional values, limited government and strong defense message to mainstream America.
A few hundred supporters and fans gathered in a dimmed mid-sized hall at the Polk County Convention complex, many wearing Thompson stickers and holding miniature American flags. With the exception of a few shout-outs and bursts of applause, their reaction wasn't as overwhelming as it was warm, accepting and approving.
Many in the audience were primed for his visit, having seen him Wednesday on the Jay Leno show, and they ate up his message.
Some, however, thought it was short on specifics.
In his speech — the first since announcing he'd seek the GOP nomination for president — Thompson said that "the American people have opened up a door of opportunity" for him, and he promised to campaign on "the same common sense, conservative beliefs" he held when he served in the Senate.
"I am not here today because I had a lifelong ambition to hold the office of the presidency, nor do I think that I have all the answers for the problems that face this country," Thompson said. "I am a man who loves his country, who is concerned about her future and knows that in the next year it's going to require strong leadership."
In the few hours since his announcement, Thompson has found support for his candidacy.
Since 12:01 a.m. Thursday, Thompson's campaign has raised more than $300,000 in Internet contributions as 150,000 people watched a video of his announcement.
Citing the strong fundraising and Web traffic as well as the voter response in Iowa, campaign manager Bill Lacy said, "We're very pleased. Eight days ago people were questioning whether or not Fred would even be making the race. Over the last seven days we heard doubts about his abilities — lots of people saying, 'This can't happen. There's no way they can get it together.' We've had what we feel is a very impressive rollout."
Many in the audience Thursday said they had committed to Thompson before hearing him speak. And while some insisted that it was his record as a senator that sold them, others said they were wooed by his persona as a television actor or by what they saw as his similarities to President Ronald Reagan, who also had been an actor.
"I kind of fell in love with Mr. Thompson on the TV screen," said Caleb Christine, 26, a factory worker and Army reservist who served in Iraq. "I'm a definite 'Law & Order' fan. I really like the character he portrayed on there and everything he's ever played on TV."
Christine said he first became curious about Thompson as a political figure when Thompson helped John G. Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, win Senate confirmation two years ago.
"So all of my knowledge is pretty recent about him. But once I started reading more about him and studying more about him, I really just fell in love with the politics he's got, how confident he is and how straightforward he is with the public," he said.
Having announced his presidential bid months after eight other Republican candidates entered the race, Thompson told the Iowa crowd, "The preseason is over. Let's get on with it!"
But his speech, which ran a little over 20 minutes, glossed over policy. On Iraq, he indicated his support for continuing the war, saying, "If we show weakness and division, we will pay a heavy price for it in the future." He added: "I don't think we have anything to apologize for."
He spoke of how imperative it was to secure the nation's borders against illegal immigrants. He drew strong applause when he promised to nominate only the sort of federal judges who would strictly interpret the Constitution and then again when he declared, "We still get our basic rights from God and not government."
Jerry Jungman, a retired businessman, said Thompson's speech was "very positive, pretty much what I was looking for" but too short on policy to be definitive. "I'd still like to hear more," he said.
Charli Cantwell, 39, a homemaker who home-schools her children, said she had been undecided but that Thompson's appearance on "The Tonight Show" won her over.
"The interview he had last night with Jay Leno was really good," she said. She liked his support for the Iraq war and his demeanor. "He just seemed like an average Joe."
Kyle Frette, 22, an undecided voter, wanted more from Thompson.
"I think he needs to start playing catch up as far as issues as concerned," Frette said. "It was a lot of rhetoric today. Not a lot of specific details on issues."
Thompson took no questions in Des Moines, but stopping just before sunset in Council Bluffs in the southwest corner of the state, he decided to take a few from hundreds who came out to a town square to see him. On his abortion stance, he said, "My record in eight years in the Senate was 100 percent against abortion or anything related to it." On the federal No Child Left Behind education policy, Thompson said he had voted for it but now had "very mixed feelings" because of reports of states dumbing down their testing to protect their federal money. He said he now prefers giving block grants to states.
Thompson was joined by his wife, Jeri, their two young children and his in-laws on the campaign trail.
Two large campaign buses with his photo spread across the sides and the slogan "United by our core beliefs" waited to transport his team and a bevy of media to a handful of other Iowa cities over the next couple of days before heading to New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.