When the presidential campaign of former Republican Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson got a much-needed boost Tuesday morning with its endorsement from the National Right to Life Committee, one of the nation's leading anti-abortion interest groups, there was more going on than the standard political backing. This was a key constituency telling its supporters that Thompson is to be believed.
"I am blessed and grateful to have received their endorsement," said Thompson, whose campaign depends upon the support of social conservatives.
During his eight years in the Senate, Thompson consistently voted against abortion rights, but anti-abortion activists say his public record on the subject is not unblemished.
A longtime advocate for states' rights, Thompson has said the federal government should not have a role in the process.
During a televised 1994 Senate debate, a clip of which is available on YouTube, Thompson said, "Should the government come in and criminalize let's say a young girl and her parents and her doctor? ... I think not."
More recently, Thompson has been forced to answer questions about his career as a lawyer/lobbyist, when the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association hired him in 1991 to lobby the administration of President George H.W. Bush on behalf of abortion rights.
In Georgia last month, Thompson said, "That was private life ... Those people now are coming out of the woodwork now because I'm their worst nightmare. I proceeded to go to the United States Senate and vote against them consistently for eight years so now they're trying to defeat me."
The National Right to Life Committee seemed to tacitly acknowledge that other Republican candidates -- such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee -- have purer records on the subject in its endorsement, in which the group made a nod to Thompson's electability.
"Our endorsement is a testament to Sen. Thompson's long-standing pro-life record, his commitment to unborn children, and our belief in his ability to win," said Wanda Franz, the NRLC president.
Thompson himself has seemed to acknowledge the skepticism there may be about his true views on the subject by increasingly making his abortion pitch a personal one and explaining how his feelings have evolved.
Speaking at the Value Voters Summit last month, the 65-year-old, whose second marriage includes daughter, Hayden, 4, and 1-year-old son, Sam, recalled looking at the sonogram of Hayden in the womb.
"My political record and my head were always there, always has been there, but I must say that it took life's experiences for me to absorb the real importance of it all," Thompson said.
"I had been blessed early in my life when I was young ... With regard to Ms. Hayden, I can only say that after the first time in my life, seeing the sonogram of my own child. I will never think exactly the same again. I will never feel exactly the same again. Because my heart now is fully engaged with my head."
"As president of the United States,'' he said, "no legislation will pass my desk that funds or supports this procedure without my veto."
In a later interview with ABC News, Thompson expounded on this theme.
"I went through the process when I was a very young man," he said. "And I thought I fully appreciated it and all. But there's some things you can't appreciate until you're a little bit older. And I was surprised to learn that I was going to be a father again. But to go through that process again, you absorb and understand so much more about the miracle of it all. And the preciousness of it all. And how fragile the most important things are."
Even with the NRLC's backing, Thompson faces criticism from anti-abortion activists who don't like his stated opposition to a constitutional amendment banning abortion.
On Monday, Thompson told reporters, "What I have concentrated on is a way to get to the same goal that's achievable. We could not get to first base on an amendment when we controlled both houses and the presidency. Now the question is, what do you do about that? Well, I think the answer is to get better judges and to appoint people to the Supreme Court and hopefully someday Roe v. Wade will be overturned. That's my goal. That's my priority."