Fred Thompson comes home to end campaign kickoff

In a town where everyone knows him simply by his first name, Fred Thompson received a hometown hero welcome Saturday night as he capped his first 10 days as an official candidate for president.

"We haven't even had an election yet," Thompson said as the crowd roared when he took a stage set up in the town square. "Just think what it's going to be like after we win the election?"

The former senator recounted the small-town values of honesty and responsibility he learned in this southern Tennessee town.

"I want to thank you for that, Lawrenceburg," he said.

Large video screens flanking the stage showed Thompson's motorcade arrive in the Norman Rockwell-like square with a white gazebo flanked by a bronze statue of the area's other famous son — pioneer and statesman Davy Crockett.

Thompson was preceded on stage by a who's who of Tennessee Republicans, including former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker.

People began arriving midday and spent a crisp afternoon listening to country music — including John Rich or Big & Rich — along with bluegrass and gospel and milling around food booths selling everything from burgers to funnel cakes.

Numerous business marquees greeted the GOP candidate with "Welcome Home, Fred" in a town that has seen the high school cutup mature into a lawyer who played a prominent role in Watergate, to a U.S. senator and actor.

Nearly everyone in this town of 11,000 seems to be related or think they are related or simply feel like a relative to Thompson, best known as prosecutor Arthur Branch on the popular television series Law & Order.

"I think it's the biggest thing that's happened in Lawrence County," said Kenneth Johns, 68, who manned a table in the makeshift Fred Thompson memorabilia store that he helped open in recent days on the town square.

With buttons, baseball caps and bumper stickers displayed around him, Johns discussed with several people his kinship with Thompson, thumbing through a genealogical printout that someone had provided to the retired executive of the former Reynolds Metals beverage can plant.

Eventually, a woman who has been designated as the unofficial genealogist in town looking into the Thompson family history concluded that he was a third cousin once removed.

"Personally, to me he brings something most people in this area and around the country don't have — a candidate that they like, if you want the truth of it," said Johns.

Bill Caudle, who was participating in the genealogical debate, said the Thompson appeal is simple: "He's just a hometown guy. He can relate to them (regular people)."

One Thompson supporter who was hard to miss was Marc Sleenhof of Franklin, who set up downtown with a recreational vehicle that he has custom painted to promote the Thompson candidacy.

Sleenhof, 35, is longtime fan of Thompson and an avid RVer. "I woke up one day and had kind of an epiphany. I love Fred Thompson and I love RVing and I can put the two together," Sleenhoff said.

He took the mobile Thompson billboard on a 5,000-mile trip west this summer to California. "The thing with Fred Thompson is I know who I've got," Sleenhof said. "Besides the issues, it's the man behind the issues."

Thompson kicked off his campaign Sept. 6, announcing on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and posting a 15-minute video on his campaign website. Then he set off on a three-day bus tour of Iowa, which holds the first presidential caucuses. He followed that up with stops in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He had been in Florida since Thursday before arriving in Tennessee.

Since the announcement, he has gained an average of about 5 percentage points in the seven polls taken. In one, he was in a virtual tie with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But on average in those polls, Giuliani held a 29% to 22% advantage over Thompson.