CELEBRATION, Fla., Oct. 25, 2007 -- At Water Tower Florists in Celebration, Fla., former Tennessee Sen. Fred Dalton Thompson has come to woo women voters.
Thompson needs to win the support of Florida Republican women in order to win this Southern state that is key to his strategy. The setting conjures memories of his nearly 20-year bachelorhood between his two marriages when he had a reputation as a ladies man.
His smooth ways were on display at Water Tower Florists — the dapper dress, the low, reassuring slow-jams voice full of homespun common sense.
In contrast to some of his more aggressive and energetic competitors for the Republican presidential nomination, Thompson has a style that is decidedly low key. He is also, perhaps unfairly, competing with the commanding presence he has projected on the big and small screens for decades as an actor in "Die Hard 2," "In the Line of Fire" and on "Law & Order." And as Ronald Reagan learned before him, reality is a far cry from the tightly scripted drama of his movies and TV shows.
His relaxed manner coupled with his relatively late entry into the race, his modest fundraising and his less-than-frenetic schedule have some observers wondering whether he's lazy or even worse — ambivalent about being president. Thompson says that's all nonsense.
"I'm kind of a laid-back guy. … If people think I'm too laid back or not ambitious enough, that's their prerogative. I'm gonna be me, and that's what they get," Thompson told the gathering at the flower shop.
Thompson Defines His Own Terms
ABC News joined Thompson, sometimes behind the scenes, for his recent swing through Florida. He brushed off suggestions that the roughly two public events he did a day was evidence he wasn't fully engaged.
Thompson explained to this reporter that his campaign has a certain rhythm and reason to it. "A campaign is a long process and it involves many things. I've even done a couple of fundraisers you weren't invited to. I don't want to hurt your feelings," he said with a smile.
Thompson says the chattering classes are missing what the voters will ultimately see — that not being consumed with winning empowers him to be a better politician.
"If I can't tell the truth, then it's not worth running for president," he told the dozen women at Water Tower Florists. "It's a risk, but it's a risk I'm willing to take, because I have the freedom. And if the people aren't ready for that, they can tell me. But I think they are. I think the people are better than the politicians give them credit for," he said.
That's the key to his pitch — he's doing this on his own terms -— and whether the press buys it or not, he's clearly hoping it resonates with voters.
"I do things my way. I don't feel like I have to come out and explain to the national media every time I make a decision as to how, when, where I want to campaign," he told ABC News.
Family Tragedy and a New Political Vision
This determination to run on his own terms seems to stem from a family crisis five years ago after the January 2002 death of his 38-year-old daughter, Betsy.
Within two years of Betsy's death, the lawyer-turned-actor-turned-senator retired from the Senate, married a woman 24 years his junior and started a new family.
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.
"She refused to behave like a candidate's wife until her husband became a candidate. She was taking our little girl to preschool. She had a 6-month-old baby at the time. She had her priorities straight. She got anonymous phone calls from people telling her why we couldn't run and things like that, which of course made her resolve even stronger, and mine, too. But she refused to go out and defend herself against being a trophy wife or whatever it is they decided to call her. She just let it go. They couldn't understand that," Thompson said.
Thompson said it's not a "fair characterization" to say that she wanted him to seek the presidency. "She wanted me to do what I felt like I ought to do. She thought that I could do some things for the country and I probably ought to step forward, that I was not at my highest and best use, that I could do something for the party and that I could, more importantly, do something for the country."
A 'Law & Order' Conservative
In Florida, Thompson emphasized what he would do for the country in terms of immigration, visiting with law enforcement on the front lines.
"Can I just say how much I appreciate you sheriffs and what you're doing here. Of course, I just naturally gravitate towards people that believe in law and order," Thompson said jokingly to the group.
He outlined an aggressive immigration reform program, seven points including a hard line against amnesty, attrition through the enforcement of current laws and bolstering border security .
He also used the issue to distinguish himself as more conservative than his Republican competitors Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain.
"I was a conservative yesterday. I'm one today. And I'll be one tomorrow," he said.
Asked about his lack of executive experience that Giuliani had as a mayor or Romney had as a governor, he said, "Management's important, but leadership is more important. Managers are people who leaders hire."
Thompson says his newfound freedom lets him take politically perilous positions, such as grabbing the so-called third rail of American politics — Social Security.
"I've talked about indexing benefits so that they increase with inflation and don't increase with wages, which is what we do now. Dollar for dollar, they'd get the same thing current retirees get, they just wouldn't get more than current retirees get," he said.
It's a complex concept to spell out in a campaign and an easy one for opponents to cast as an attempt to cut Social Security.
"That's why people don't bring it up, so therefore we continue on the current path and we bankrupt the system," he said.
Thompson has also taken some heat from another crucial voting bloc for the Republican Party — evangelical conservatives — for saying he does not often go to church.
Thompson tried to sum up his spirituality. "I think that when a man has been through the heights and depths of life, and when he's had the tragedies and the blessings of life, as I have, I think you develop an even greater sense of what's important and what's not. A person has to realize at some point in his life it's not about him. It's about higher things, and the need to be right with God. And to be right with those who love you. And if you've got that, none of the rest of it matters."