09/06/2007 03:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Clock's Ticking: Thompson And Foes Fight To Frame Candidacy

Just one day after announcing his White House aspirations, former Senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., may be facing the most significant weeks of his campaign.

Political observers say the battle to frame voter perceptions of Thompson is already underway and could be crucial in determining the Republican nominee.

"[He] has a relatively narrow window of opportunity to prove that he's this great candidate and has great appeal," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report. "He has to take advantage of his celebrity to bust into the race."

Campaign operatives, close friends and former advisers are seeking to foster the Law and Order star's image as "Fred the Savior", a pure-bred conservative who can handle big ideas with a colloquial touch.

But not everyone is buying. A strange-bedfellows mix of dubious Republicans and critical Democrats is portraying Thompson as more style than substance; the product of the D.C.-insider culture he often decries. And they have ample ammunition to work with.

Not only is Thompson the first registered lobbyist to run for president, but of the major Thompson fundraisers pinpointed by the non-profit organization Public Citizen, at least 15 are registered federal lobbyists, representing oil and gas, defense, student loan, and telecommunications industries. In addition, at least seven former Thompson staffers are registered lobbyists, according to the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics.

"This is a career in lobbying that has expanded three decades," said Wade Munday, spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party. More often then not, "Thompson went where the money is."

In subsequent weeks the lobbyist issue seems likely to be raised by Republicans as well, several of whom, in interviews with The Huffington Post, pointed to Thompson's past clients - including a family planning group, foreign corporations doing business in the United States, a Teamster's union pension fund with (alleged) past ties to the mob, and former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide - as evidence that the Tennessean lacks the conservative credentials he often espouses.

Thompson's camp writes off his lobbying record as mere representation, in the same vein as a lawyer who takes on clients he or she may not agree with. They argue that rather than harping on Thompson's K-Street connections, voters will instead be drawn to the former senator's political acumen.

"[Fred's] political instincts are fantastic," said Tim Ingrim, a consultant on Thompson's 1994 Senatorial campaign and currently the chief of staff for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Handling legislation, Ingrim recalled, Thompson was "like a judge preparing to hear a case. He'd take a bill and read it from start to finish and then debate it from side-to-side and then decide which way to vote."

And yet, some insiders predict that Thompson's legislative record will prove more hindrance than benefit. One Republican opponent, who asked not to be identified, said of the former senator, "This is someone who did very little while spending eight years on Capitol Hill. And what he did was more in line with a centrist than a Republican."

Indeed, the campaign finance hearings Thompson convened in 1996 to investigate the Clinton administration's fundraising apparatus left many Republicans thirsting for more. And Thompson's support for the McCain-Feingold Act - which puts limits on the amount of money candidates can raise - may prove thornier within conservative circles.

"My guess is we are going to start seeing more about his support for campaign finance reform," said Norm Ornstein, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "And we are going to see something about the fact that he worked reasonably well with a number of Democrats. The fact is, he's a moderate person, and I expect if we go back 20 years he probably expressed centrist views."

During the subsequent weeks, Thompson's supporters will likely walk a thin line in defending the former senator's work in D.C. Those who spoke with The Huffington Post sought to tout what the senator did in office while simultaneously upholding the image of Thompson as a Washington outsider.

"I think Fred's position is that he's had a diverse experience," said a former Thompson associate. "He understands how Washington works but he's not a lifer. He spent eight years in the Senate, he knows something about it, and he was a lawyer for some time. But he also spent a lot more time down in Tennessee."

As the battle to frame Thompson's candidacy picks up steam, the chips appear somewhat stacked against the Tennessean's favor. Expectations are frighteningly high, observers warn, and having entered the contest months after all of his opponents, there is little or no room for failure.

"When you wait this long and you have all this build up when you are compared to Reagan, it puts a burden on the candidate," said Rothenberg. "Maybe it's unfair but he's the one who chose to wait till September."

-- Sam Stein is a Staff Writer at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at samstein@huffingtonpost.com