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Revisiting Fred Thompson

My sense is that if you are conservative and were watching Fox News Sunday yesterday, you liked what you saw in former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. My sense is also that if you are a Republican presidential candidate, you didn't.

Host Chris Wallace went down the litany of questions and Thompson hit all the right notes from a conservative voter's perspective: Pro-life; Scalia-like judges; against gay marriage; opposes gun control; would pardon Libby; and supports the President's surge in Iraq.

Thompson's record in the Senate from 1995 through 2002 sustained his answers: His lifetime American Conservative Union rating is 86 (out of 100) and his lifetime Americans for Democratic Action (the liberal quotient) rating is a measly 5. Add in his presence in front of the camera as well as his folksy way of speaking, and it's no wonder conservatives are pressing him to get into the race.

There were a few stumbling blocks, however. On immigration, Thompson had to splice some comments he's made which make it sound as if he agrees with his friend Sen. John McCain. The very fact that he felt he needed to address that issue means Thompson well understands that the McCain position doesn't play well with the conservative base. Wallace also asked, though didn't press, Thompson about his previous support for campaign-finance reform - another McCain albatross.

But there are two questions Wallace didn't ask. First, he didn't ask Thompson about tort reform. In 1995, the GOP-led House passed a tough medical liability bill that included tort reform as part of the Contract With America. Things were all ready to go in the Senate under Majority Leader Bob Dole, when freshman - and former trial lawyer - Thompson introduced his own medical liability reform bill, sans tort reform. The bill passed and in conference committee the House's tort reform package got completely extirpated. Conservatives were outraged and many blamed Thompson.

Second, Wallace introduced his guest by asking, "Is Fred Thompson the next Ronald Reagan?" What he didn't bring up is that this isn't the first time conservatives have expected big things from Thompson nor the first time he's been compared to Reagan.

In a 1999 National Review article by Jay Nordlinger, for instance, we're reminded that Thompson's Senate career failed to live up to the hype. Who recalls that in 1994, before Thompson was even sworn in, Dole tapped Thompson to give the rebuttal to an economic address by Bill Clinton? The day after his five-minute retort the New York Times ran a headline "A Star is Born." The New Republic followed with an article called "Reagan Redux." Nordlinger wrote, "The mentioning class began to mention him as a possible vice-presidential nominee in 1996, and certainly as a contender for the top prize in 2000."

But life in the Senate got in the way. In addition to the tort reform mess, Nordlinger says, Republicans were also upset that Thompson, as chairman of Governmental Affairs Committee, wasn't as eager as they were to go after the White House during investigations into campaign-finance reform abuses. "On top of all that, they think he seems joyless, arrogant, and hostile to the political p's and q's that ordinarily make for success in Washington," Nordlinger wrote. Ouch.

Perhaps enough years have passed and perhaps Thompson was never suited to life in the Senate - not a bad quality, to be sure. After all, there's a reason senators rarely make it to the White House. But with Thompson-mania sure to increase following his Wallace interview, these are issues Thompson is going to have to address.