Low-Key Thompson Stumbles Toward Finish Line

Since he's been in the race, he's been beset by stumbles and gaffes that have taken him off-message. When he said, Saturday, in Burlington, Iowa, that he was "not particularly interested in running for president," it was a line that cut too closely to the truth — He meant that the process of campaigning held no special appeal, and he wasn't good at hiding it.

On Tuesday, even a four-minute session with reporters featured two cringe-inducing moments. He predicted that he would do well in the caucus "tomorrow," and then cited approving words penned by Des Moines Register columnist "Roger" Yepsen. The caucuses will be held on Thursday, and Yepsen's first name — as any close follower of Iowa politics knows — is David.

For all the hiccups, Thompson showed signs of stirring in recent weeks. On Dec. 12, he turned in a strong debate performance, punctuated by his refusal to raise his hand in answer to the moderator's yes-or-no question — the inspiration for his "hands down" theme.

The debate prompted Yepsen to predict that a Thompson comeback was possible. Thompson also picked up the surprise endorsement of Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who promised to help Thompson pick up voters among anti-immigration hard-liners.

The bus tour was supposed to be Thompson's big push. With his wife, Jeri, often at his side, he seemed more energetic on the stump, and he started drawing bigger crowds.

But then, even as Huckabee solidified his support among evangelical voters, Thompson went, essentially, nowhere. As other campaigns have flooded Iowa's airwaves with ads, Thompson's campaign cash woes left him off of television; instead, he released a 17-minute online video, where he takes his message directly to voters.

On Tuesday, with Jeri and their 4-year-old daughter, Hayden, at his side, Thompson ambled through the veterans home, making small talk. He drew flashes of recognition and plenty of questions about his movie roles and "Law & Order" appearances.

"I watched you twice a day during the Watergate hearings," Bill Betts, a 65-year-old Air Force veteran, told Thompson. Thompson lit up, recalling how he got the Senate counsel job, as a 30-year-old lawyer, through his friend and mentor, former Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn.

Alas, Betts said after meeting Thompson, he's caucusing for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. "He's a nice man," Betts said. "But his and my politics are diametrically opposed."

Alice Hager and her husband, Larry, were equally thrilled to meet Thompson. Alice told him he looks thinner and taller in person, and Thompson spoke at length about how short some actors and politicians are.

Alice pronounced herself a fan.

"He came in so quietly," she said, after he left the room. "So many of these guys think they need to make a splash. We need a quiet strength these days."

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