BREAKING NEWS: Fred to Jay: I'm running for president!
Back at home on NBC-TV, Fred Thompson, formerly of "Law & Order" and the United States Senate, made it official a few minutes ago.
During a taping of the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" in Burbank for national broadcast later this evening, Thompson said, "That's one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. I'm running for president of the United States."
The audience broke into prolonged applause.
Asked if he waited too long, "Of course, we'll find out, but 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 criticized the current debate formats with so many candidates and only seconds to reply, saying he favored a format with one-on-one candidates going for a longer time. Asked about missing tonight's debate in New Hampshire, Thompson said, "I'll do my share." He said his opponents are all formidable and cited John McCain as "a good friend, and he will be again after this is over with--unless he beats me. Then I'll have to take another look."
"Look," he said, "the nation's not gonna be hurt by having one more good person step into the race."
He told Leno he did support the Iraq war. "You got to remember what it'd be like if we'd not done what we did. Saddam would still be there, having defeated the United Nations and all its resolutions, continued its nuclear weapons program, putting people in human shredders and attacking their neighbors and in a nuclear competition with Iran. We stay till we get the job done."
Another former actor named Arnold Schwarzenegger used the same stage to announce his candidacy for California governor a few years ago. And that worked. Thompson let the other eight GOP wannabes once again debate their same old positions on a Fox cable channel from New Hampshire this evening.
Thompson was plugging his formal 15-minute webcast campaign announcement set to go up early Thursday morning on his new campaign website, Fred08.com. Then he'll actually hit the campaign trail in Iowa Thursday afternoon in a new bus that also breaks tradition; it's not red, white and blue. It's brown, mustard yellow and red, but doesn't look as bad as it sounds.
He'll head out to Des Moines, Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Council Bluffs, which if you've ever driven Iowa, is a hike. Thompson is months behind his GOP opponents in money, organization and contacts, especially Mitt Romney, who leads the Iowa and New Hampshire state polls and won the Ames straw poll last month. Thompson, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain skipped that event given Romney's organization and lead. No Republican has ever won the Iowa caucus without competing in the Ames poll.
Before leaving, Leno tried out some bumper stickers on Thompson: "Fred Thompson because Giuliani is
too hard to spell." "Fred Thompson has a narrow stance."
"So you're off to Iowa tonight?" Leno asked.
"Yes," said Thompson. "It starts right now."
Meanwhile, in Durham, New Hampshire, the very first question posed to the debate panel of candidates by Brit Hume was about the missing candidate. Ron Paul said he welcomed Thompson because he would dilute support for all of Paul's opponents.
McCain suggested Thompson was absent because "we're up past his bedtime." Romney asked, "Why the hurry? How about staying out until January or February?" And Giuliani said, "I like Fred a lot. I think he did a pretty good job of playing my part on "Law & Order." I prefer the real thing."
The Times' Michael Finnegan and Mark Barabak have the complete announcement and debate story here on this website and in Thursday's print editions. And Joe Mathews has a revealing look at the early life of the newest candidate here and also in Thursday's newspaper.
Photo: Fred Thompson; Credit: Rick Gershon / Getty Images