DES MOINES, Iowa - Republican Fred Thompson, fresh from formally announcing his presidential campaign on "The Tonight Show" and an Internet video, yesterday launched the public phase of his unorthodox bid by appearing before a modest-sized crowd in a carefully choreographed combination of Hollywood theatrics and Ronald Reagan themes.
Instead of appearing before a hometown Tennessee crowd, which could have drawn thousands of people, the actor and former US senator came to the first-caucus state in hopes that the choice of his location would draw more attention than the size of the crowd, which appeared to number at least 200, plus dozens of reporters.
"It all begins in Iowa," Thompson said.
It actually began with a fast-paced video, "The Hunt For Red November." It was a winking nod to one of Thompson's best-known movie roles - "The Hunt for Red October," in which he plays a rear admiral - and a reference to his need to win "red" Republican states to become president. The video briefly told the story of Thompson's rise from son of a used car dealer in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., to US senator and presidential candidate. It showed a picture of a young Thompson meeting Reagan, his idol.
Thompson joked that he liked the video so much he was tempted to play it again rather than speak to the crowd.
His speech then focused heavily on Reaganesque themes of security, a limited federal government, and the leading role of America in the world. He also urged support for the war in Iraq and against terrorism.
"We have the greatest young people in the world fighting for us and we have to match their commitment at home," Thompson said.
Thompson, 65, entered the race with high name recognition largely due to his career as a television and movie actor. He was in second place in some national polls, but was in third or fourth place in some of the early caucus and primary states, where voters put a premium on frequent contact with the candidates. A poll conducted in late August by the American Research Group of likely Iowa caucus-goers indicated former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney with 27 percent, followed by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani with 17 percent, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee with 14 percent, and Thompson with 13 percent.
The quick ascent of Huckabee - who was at 1 percent in the same poll in July but rocketed in the standings after his second-place showing in the Iowa straw poll - demonstrates the volatility of the electorate.
Thompson hopes to draw from the 15 percent of voters who said in the poll that they are undecided, and persuade supporters of other candidates to switch.
Thompson senior adviser Rich Galen said that in the buildup to the 2004 Iowa caucuses, Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, was all but crowned the likely Democratic victor, but Dean faded as questions about his electability rose.
Thompson struck a chord about electability in yesterday's online announcement of his candidacy, saying that he could attract voters from across the political spectrum and could prevent the election of Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.
But some at the event were not sold on Thompson. Monte Baugher, 70, a part-time pharmacist, said that Thompson "waited too long" to enter the race and gave other candidates a chance to catch on with voters.
Thompson's immediate strategy is designed to build momentum quickly from a series of carefully staged events on television, the Internet, and on the campaign trail that the campaign hopes will be broadcast repeatedly so that they reach a potentially huge audience. "It's all about leverage," said Galen.
Michael Kranish can be reached at email@example.com.