Could-be Republican presidential candidate courts conservatives with language that may alienate moderates in the general election.
WASHINGTON — On the Web sites where conservatives gather to read and chat each day, Fred Thompson, the as-yet-unannounced Republican presidential candidate, has been laying out his positions on dozens of issues, with little public notice and plenty of rhetorical flair.
The Virginia Tech massacre, he said, showed that students should be allowed to carry guns “to protect themselves on their campuses,” and he said the university’s ban on guns may have contributed to how long the shooter was able to keep killing.
He compared scientists who insist global warming is ruining nature to those true believers about 400 years ago who insisted the Earth is flat. “Ask Galileo,” he said.
As for Congress’ recent attempt at an immigration overhaul, that was a “legislative pig” with lipstick that hid the United States’ failure to secure its borders. “A nation without secure borders will not long be a sovereign nation,” he warned.
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The musings seem to constitute Thompson’s early effort at assuring the core conservatives of the Republican Party that he is one of them, despite his past run-ins with the bloc as a senator who supported campaign-finance overhaul and opposed federal limits on malpractice lawsuits and attorneys fees.
“[Thompson’s writings] were wildly popular,” said Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of the National Review Online, where 36 commentaries by Thompson have been posted since he started testing the presidential waters in March. “It was a great way to introduce himself.
“He had just the right balance of red meat and substance to feed a conservative audience, at least as an opener.”
But the former Tennessee senator’s writings could prove problematic in a general election, where he would have to win over moderate voters.
“Today, everything is out there forever, and you don’t have any luxury of claiming there was a misunderstanding,” said Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist. “If a campaign is putting some of these comments out there, they are going to have to live with them for the rest of the campaign.”
Rollins knows the benefits and risks of a Hollywood-actor-turned-politician’s using a “commentary campaign” to burnish his conservative credentials before a run for the White House. He worked for Ronald Reagan, who for years used regular radio commentaries and columns to lay out his vision for the United States before running for president.
Thompson mostly writes his own articles, often borrowing material from the commentaries he gives on ABC Radio as a frequent contributor to the Paul Harvey show, aides said. In addition to his articles on National Review Online, Thompson has posted to the Townhall.com blog and placed podcasts on RedState.com, including a three-part, issue-oriented interview.
Thompson’s attempts to curry conservative favor come as his efforts to raise money and assemble a nationwide campaign staff have experienced growing pains. He finished June with about $3 million raised, putting him well behind the top contenders.
On Tuesday, Thompson moved aside Tom Collamore, the man he had picked to assemble his campaign. That decision prompted the immediate departure of the research director. Several sources close to the campaign said Thompson’s wife, Jeri, had lost confidence in Collamore and was exerting increased authority over campaign decisions.
The departures forced advisers to respond to questions about organizational unrest as Thompson traveled to Texas and California for fundraisers. “We’re not at a loss for people who want to help Fred Thompson, should he decide to run,” campaign spokeswoman Linda Rozett said.
Aides said Thompson’s writings and Web postings began as an effort to repurpose his radio commentaries. But they have taken on a life of their own, now that Thompson is considering running for president, giving him a forum to lay out his positions.
They have helped distinguish Thompson from many candidates in the race, said Mark Levin, a conservative talk-radio host with 4 million listeners. Thompson has appeared on his show four times in the past four months.
“Most of the other candidates — other than an issue here or there — are trying to conceal their viewpoints in which they think they will offend some portion of the electorate,” Levin said. “Thompson comes out and he is unafraid of articulating his viewpoints. He’s not trying to camouflage them.”
Thompson’s writings seem certain to appeal to key elements of the Republican base.
“Let me ask you a hypothetical question,” Thompson wrote in defending Israel’s military responses during the Palestinian conflict. “What do you think America would do if Canadian soldiers were firing dozens of missiles every day into Buffalo, N.Y.? …
“I can tell you, our response would look nothing like Israel’s restrained and pinpoint reactions to daily missile attacks from Gaza.”
Thompson also derided Congress’ failed immigration legislation, demanding its supporters “explain why putting illegals in a more favorable position than those who play by the rules is not really amnesty.”
The former trial lawyer also has taken pains to shore up one of his perceived weaknesses, explaining in detail why as a senator he opposed federal limits on malpractice lawsuits and attorneys fees, restrictions most conservatives supported.
“Federalism sometimes restrains you from doing things you want to do,” he wrote in one posting. “You have to leave the job to someone else — who may even choose not to do it at all.”
Washington Post reporter Michael Shear contributed to this report.