Fred Thompson Offers 'Comeback Trail'

In a speech to Republican activists Saturday, actor and former senator Fred Thompson cast himself as a shot in the arm for a beleaguered party.

"Folks, we're a bit down, politically, right now," he said. "But I think we're on the comeback trail, and it's going to start right here."

Thompson is not yet an official presidential candidate, though he has established a "testing the waters" committee and is expected to begin raising money this week for a possible run. Yet, a new ABC News poll shows he is already running a strong third, behind former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

It's a sign of Republican dissatisfaction with the field. Only 11 percent of Republicans declare themselves "very satisfied" with the current crop of candidates.

In a campaign dominated by an unpopular war and an unpopular president, much of the energy is on the Democratic side. According to the ABC poll, nearly a third of Republicans say President Bush is leading their party in the wrong direction.

"Republican voters in general are very concerned about their party — about the party's future, about the party's prospects," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "This is not a good time to be a Republican."

Frustrations within the party boiled over this week, when the president took on critics of his immigration plan.

"If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it, you can use it to frighten people," he said. "Or you can show leadership and solve this problem once and for all."

Many conservatives took the attack personally. "The thing that is most troublesome to me is that the words that he spoke yesterday were a criticism of the people who have stood by him through thick and thin," said radio host Rush Limbaugh.

But with Bush's approval ratings at rock bottom, picking a fight with the president — particularly on immigration — could be exactly what Republican candidates need to do.

Thompson's biggest applause line on Saturday came when he implicitly rejected the president's position on immigration. "This is our home and we get to decide who comes into our home," he said.

Other potential contenders are becoming even more blunt in their criticism of Bush.

"The government is not functioning. It's not getting the job done," said former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on "Fox News Sunday."

For Republican candidates, the challenge is to present themselves as agents of change, without alienating their base voters.

It's a difficult balancing act, but staking out different positions on topics like immigration could allow them to move away from the president without giving Democrats more ammunition on the Iraq war.

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