The complexities of Fred Thompson's bid for the Republican presidential nomination were on display to a mix of fans and undecided voters as he visited coffee shops Monday in the kickoff caucus state.
The former Tennessee senator's persona on the presidential campaign trail is not all that different from the heavyweight authority figures he has played as an actor. His style is low-key, his message is stern, he doesn't always give simple answers and he's not averse to delivering bad news.
Last week, he proposed a Social Security plan he concedes carries little if any political advantage: It would slow the growth of benefits and introduce private accounts. On Monday, he said the U.S. military is stretched too thin, U.S. intelligence isn't what it should be, and the country can't have "guns and butter" forever if it wants to win the war on terror.
"If we do the same old things the same old way with the same old people, we're going to get beat bad," he said, and the audience in a jammed coffee shop erupted in applause.
Thompson, 65, made clear he wants the job of president. "I'm the only so-called front-tier (candidate) … that's never lost an election, and I don't intend to lose this one, either," he said, referring to his 1994 and 1996 U.S. Senate races.
He also made clear he can live without the job. "If the answer is no, so be it," he told listeners in an old art deco theater-turned-cafe in Oskaloosa, although he added he's "counting" on a yes.
Polls suggest the answer so far in Iowa and most other early primary-season states is no. He is fourth in four recent polls of the GOP field here and fifth in another. He's in similar straits in New Hampshire and Florida. The latest poll of South Carolina, where he hopes to gain ground as a regional favorite, has him fourth, though he topped three earlier surveys.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani leads national polls while Thompson is second or third. In a dig at Giuliani, who supports abortion rights, Thompson said in Oskaloosa: "I will never have to stand before you and say, 'Well, I believe this way, but I promise you that I will appoint judges that disagree with me.' "
Yet Thompson's views are not simple. He could get a boost today with an endorsement from the National Right to Life Committee. But on Monday, asked about that by the Associated Press reporter who broke the endorsement news, Thompson reiterated his stand against a constitutional ban on abortion, saying he favors the repeal of Roe v. Wade as more "achievable."
That would kick the abortion decision back to the states, an outcome Thompson said is acceptable to him but unacceptable to some who oppose abortion.
Thompson's strongest point of connection in this state may be his tough plan to withhold federal money from states and cities that offer benefits to illegal immigrants. A number of undecided voters at his appearances Monday said they were trying to decide between him and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, who is running mainly on his opposition to illegal immigration.
Still, when a man in Oskaloosa asked Thompson whether he'd pledge to pardon two border patrol agents in prison for shooting a drug smuggler, the candidate said: "I can't make a promise to you based on what I read in the newspaper."
Thompson went on to say he wouldn't consider a pardon because the agents had tried to hide what they did — but he would consider a commutation because their sentence was unjustly long.
Marjorie Lane, 82, of Oskaloosa, one of those considering Tancredo and Thompson, said she liked Thompson's answer about needing the facts. "That's the lawyer in him," she said. "He's very laid-back. I don't want someone to come on really strong and then you can't trust what they say. They promise too much."