One year after that, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which is currently in remission. The 65-year-old begins his day in his hotel suite with a briefing on the news and the day's schedule, a chewed-on cigar and half-eaten breakfast sitting nearby. He is trying to be healthier, but old habits die hard.
He tours the Port of Tampa and wants to talk about homeland security, but the conversation turns instead to the Terri Schiavo controversy. Thompson gets surprisingly personal, discussing for the first time details of his daughter Betsy's death after an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
He talked about the painful decisions he and his family made. "I had to make those decisions with the rest of my family. And I will assure you one thing: No matter which decision you make, you will never know whether or not you made exactly the right decision. Making this into a political football is something that I don't welcome, and this will probably be the last time I ever address it. It should be decided by the family. The federal government — and the state government too, except for the court system — should stay out of these matters, as far as I'm concerned."
The last few years have clearly changed Thompson's perspective on a lot of issues.
"You can't live as much life as I have lived, not just in length but in quality and in terms of things that I have seen, and remain exactly the same person," he told ABC News. "I've had the worst thing that can happen to a father and the best thing that can happen to a father. It gives you a sense of perspective and it frees you up in some ways," he said.
And just as Betsy's death prompted him to leave politics in 2002, Thompson cites his 4-year-old daughter, Hayden, and son Samuel, who will soon turn 1, in his decision to leave his comfortable world as an actor on "Law & Order" and return to the political arena.
"I'm more concerned about the kind of world my kids are going to grow up in, my grandkids are going to grow up in than I have about any material comforts I have at the moment. We're going to need strong leadership in these next few years. There are going to be decisions on the president's desk that will impact our future for a long time to come, matters concerning our national security, matters concerning our economy and the prosperity. It's important stuff, and I think we need someone who is not burning with longtime personal ambitions, who can afford to tell the truth about important things as you see them. And I can do that."
When told that his wife is one of the top Google searches related to his name, he smiles. "That's one of the things I'm most interested in, too," he said.
After his divorce in 1985, Thompson was one of Washington's most noted bachelors, dating country music star Lorrie Morgan among others. That ended when he married Republican operative Jeri Kehn, but much to Thompson's chagrin, some of the attention given to Jeri has been negative. There have been crude comments about her looks and whispers about her controlling the campaign.