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Fred Thompson

WASHINGTON — The 10 Republican presidential candidates will meet in New Hampshire today for their second debate, yet the prospective candidate with the most buzz will not even be on stage.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., perhaps best known for an acting career that includes a role on the popular TV series "Law & Order," established a preliminary campaign committee Friday and has all but announced he will enter the race.

This may cause a shake-up among the contenders — with some experts singling out former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — while others say it is too soon to tell how the actor-turned-politician will affect the race, if at all.

Romney, who led Salt Lake City's successful 2002 Winter Olympics, leads the polls in Iowa, where the presidential primary season will kick off in January, and has earned top-tier GOP candidate status alongside former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

But some believe that a Thompson candidacy could change that as the man who plays a tough-talking New York district attorney on TV could fill the conservative slot on the Republican ticket that Romney has worked since day one to claim.

"(Romney's) the conservative alternative to Giuliani right now," said David E. Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision LLC, a Republican public affairs firm. "But they (conservatives) don't have the same reservations about Thompson as they do about Romney."

Johnson said some conservatives are still "leery" that Romney will run as a conservative but then resort to more moderate positions on key issues such as abortion and gay rights that he had when running in 1994 against Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. With possibly two Supreme Court seats coming up during the next presidential term, some conservatives do not want to take the chance, Johnson said.

The religion factor

Religion is also a factor, "playing a larger role than people will admit," said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University in Ohio. Romney is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Thompson is a member of the Church of Christ.

Right now, Romney looks like the more credible conservative candidate, but conservatives are "still uneasy about his Mormonism, so they will look to Thompson," Smith said.

Smith, who specializes in research on religion and politics, said some religious conservatives, particularly in the South, still see Mormonism as a cult and would have a hard time putting a Mormon in the White House, while Thompson would not have to overcome that hurdle.

"He is a Southern religious conservative; he can speak to conservatives in a way the others cannot," Smith said, adding that Thompson has "consistency" in his statements while "Romney has to start every press conference or statement almost with a disclaimer."

"(Thompson's) not going to have to explain things away," Smith said.

The South Carolina primary has been the litmus test for Romney because it would be the first test of whether Christian conservatives in the South would vote for an LDS candidate. Adding Thompson to the ticket may make it a bigger obstacle.

But while Smith thinks Thompson's entrance into the race may affect Romney, he is not convinced Thompson has "staying power" to eventually become the nominee.

"His resume is thinner, and he doesn't have a lot of hands-on political experience," Smith said. Conservatives will give Thompson a fair hearing, though, Smith said, because none of the candidates "are particularly exciting" to them at this point.

How conservative?

But Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Thompson is not the answer for conservatives dissatisfied with their choices.

"Fred Thompson is not that conservative. His voting record is very much similar to McCain's," especially on issues like campaign finance. He is not that (former Arkansas Gov. Mike) Huckabee 'I-don't-believe-in-evolution' kind of candidate," Jowers said.

Voters don't know much about Thompson yet, Jowers said, but once they do, their interest in him as a candidate will wane. "We always like what we can't have. Once we can have it, it's not so great," Jowers said.

Thompson, he said, is "an empty vessel to most people, so they fill him up with whatever they desire in a candidate ... ; (now) all his foibles and his record will be there and people will start falling away from him."

As for the evangelical Christians who want a conservative candidate but aren't comfortable with Romney's membership in the LDS Church, they may turn to Thompson initially, Jowers said, but they will turn away once they review his record.

"Early, I think it has an impact, because I think people will be happy because they have an alternative who is not a Mormon. But ultimately, they have to compare the individuals, and I think at that stage (Romney) will be fine."

Late in the game

The timing is also important. Thompson's formal announcement may come later this summer, but the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have been raising money and meeting with voters in the early primary states — particularly Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — practically since the 2004 campaign ended.

"I think it is too late for someone to mount a credible campaign," Jowers said, noting Romney, Giuliani and McCain already have considerable campaign resources available, something that Thompson will only begin building. "He has a Herculean task ahead of him."

Money may determine how long Thompson lasts.

Kelly Patterson, director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said that while Thompson will benefit from what Patterson characterized as his "freshness as a candidate," the other major contenders have already raised record amounts of money in record time, thanks to the unique nature of the 2008 campaign cycle.

With the presidency up for grabs, "the intense nature of this cycle early on has forced the hand of fund-raisers, party activists and political consultants" to choose a candidate. Romney, for example, bested his Republican competitors by raising more than $21 million in the first three months of the year.

"In some ways, it's an arms race," Patterson said. "Because the fields are so crowded, the candidates believe they have to differentiate themselves. ... The way they do that is by committing major talent, raising large sums of money and doing well" in events such as today's debate.

Opportunity knocks

Thompson's looming announcement puts extra emphasis on tonight's debate, said Matt Eventoff, a political communication and public speaking expert.

"If a top-tier candidate does stumble, it could lead to a media barrage that removes him from the first tier, as the press knows a third top-tier candidate is on the way," Eventoff said. "In the same vein, if a candidate puts in an outstanding performance, that candidate solidifies his place in the top tier. Thompson has a very distinct advantage as he does not have to participate in the debate and knows he will be a top-tier candidate upon declaring."

Patterson said there's no question that Thompson should be taken seriously, despite his late entry in the race.

"He has a high profile in the national media. He's an experienced candidate. He can raise funds initially," Patterson said. And with many Republicans clamoring for another choice, "he's the one who can capitalize on that. ... The question is, can he make the best of this opportunity?"

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said Thompson is a formidable candidate, but as Romney meets with more and more voters the campaign feels "very good" that there is growing support among Republicans.

"We welcome anyone into the race," Madden said.

Thompson on 'Hannity'

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Former Sen. Fred Thompson, who has all but declared his candidacy for president, may not be on the stage at tonight's Republican debate in New Hampshire, but he will have another platform all to himself — on the Fox News Channel.

NYTimes.com reported Monday that Thompson is to appear live on "Hannity & Colmes" after the debate.

This show may be an even better venue for Thompson. He will have the set to himself and will not have to compete with his 10 soon-to-be rivals for precious airtime during the two-hour talk-fest.

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