RICHMOND, Va.--He lacks the compelling story of Rudy Giuliani during 9/11. He isn't a war hero with a 24-year record in Congress like John McCain. He doesn't have the M.B.A. smoothness and business success of Mitt Romney. But what Fred Thompson demonstrated to an enthusiastic Virginia Republican Party dinner Saturday is that he has gravitas, a presence and the ability to make people comfortable. Most importantly, many at the dinner saw him as a conservative who doesn't alienate or cause angst with any element of the GOP coalition.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says the failure of any of the current candidates to excite chunks of the Republican base has given Mr. Thompson an opening. Conservatives "seem to look for reasons to like Thompson," Mr. Sabato told the Roanoke Times.
They certainly got some from Mr. Thompson's Saturday speech. After slightly ragged tryouts before audiences in California and Connecticut, he hit his stride with a speech that mixed warnings about the state of the country with optimism that the American people can overcome the challenges facing them.
He called on Republicans to build "a new coalition" in 2008 that avoids some of the mistakes that led to last November's disaster. "Some of us came to drain the swamp [in Washington] and made partnership with the alligators," he said, explaining how the GOP Congress ended up tagged as soft on spending.
"Folks, we're a bit down politically right now, but I think we're on the comeback trail, and it's going to start right here," he assured his listeners. "It's like the American people are waiting for us," he continued. "They're waiting for us to remember why we're doing what we're doing, about the ideas that inspired us, to remember who the leaders were that inspired us."
To that end, Mr. Thompson said the next president should have the courage to talk straight with the American people and bluntly say that Americans will have to confront both the soaring cost of entitlements and the need to remain committed in the war on terror, even when Iraq is "in the rear-view mirror." "This is a battle between the forces of civilization and of evil," he said, noting that reports over the weekend of a foiled plot against John F. Kennedy Airport in New York was proof positive that terrorism remains a real threat. "I listen to the Democratic congressional leaders and I hear them talking about how many [House and Senate] seats they're going to pick up because of this war," he said. "I listened to one of their presidential candidates talk about that this is a phony war, the war on terror. This is what passes for policy today in the Democratic Party."
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