WASHINGTON - Former US senator Fred Thompson, facing increasingly loud complaints from supporters about the delay in announcing his presidential bid, told backers yesterday that he will file official candidacy papers next week in a move that transforms the Republican field.
In an e-mail to the news media late yesterday afternoon, Thompson for the first time declared he will seek the presidency, saying he is "confident that we have an opportunity to change politics in Washington and across the country, and take on these challenges the way every generation of Americans has faced the challenges of their time - with unity, hard work, and a belief that we will come out on the winning side."
Thompson said he had been encouraged by the response to his months of "testing the waters." Some potential supporters, however, said they had abandoned his bid because they had tired of waiting for him, while others were ecstatic that he finally joined the fray.
Political analysts said Thompson's entry could have the most significant impact on Mitt Romney because both men are seeking the same conservative voters. But some questioned whether Thompson's late entry will dilute his impact.
"By staying out of the race to this point, he really has given Romney a huge start," said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan analyst who follows the presidential campaign. "Mitt has already run half of a mile and has a half mile to go and finally Thompson is deciding to start the race."
Still, Rothenberg said Thompson's celebrity and his conservative credentials could be enough to enable him to catch up quickly.
Romney's spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, said the former Massachusetts governor welcomed Thompson into the race, saying the campaign looked "forward to hearing his ideas and seeing him on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, Iowa, and everywhere in between."
A recent national poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports suggested that Thompson was solidly in second place, trailing former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani by a 25 percent-to-21 percent margin, putting him ahead of Romney, who had 17 percent. Political analysts cautioned, however, that Thompson's strong national numbers may stem in part from his high name recognition as a movie actor and a former cast member of TV's "Law & Order."
His poll numbers were lower in some early primary and caucus states, where the momentum of the race may be determined.
Thompson will formally kick off his campaign with a video webcast Sept. 6, his aides said. After that he plans to visit the first-caucus state, Iowa, on Sept. 7 and 8. He will arrive in New Hampshire on the evening of Sept. 8, then tour the state by bus Sept. 9. He will then do events in South Carolina and Florida, which plan to have early primaries, and his home state of Tennessee.
Thompson's schedule means that he will skip a debate on Sept. 5 in Durham, N.H., sponsored by the New Hampshire Republican Party. The campaign did not comment yesterday on a report in The
New Hampshire's Republican Party chairman, Fergus Cullen, said he was "disappointed" with Thompson's decision not to participate in the debate.
"I think they are making a tactical mistake and a strategic mistake by not participating in the debate," Cullen said. "I hope they change their mind, and if they do, we will rearrange the stage.
"I am reminded of 1999 when Governor Bush skipped the Dartmouth debate in October. They sent some message about the imperial campaign. I think the Bush campaign would trace their unraveling in New Hampshire with their decision to blow off that debate," Cullen said.
Bush lost the New Hampshire primary to Senator John McCain in 2000 but went on to win the nomination.
Thompson, in an interview with the Globe earlier this week, however, stressed that the New Hampshire primary is integral to his campaign strategy. "It would be very important, no question about that, and we would be treating it as such," Thompson said.
Thompson's entry in the race has been a foregone conclusion for weeks, but his refusal to definitively declare his candidacy upset some potential supporters who contend that he has lost precious momentum.
"I am only with [former Arkansas governor Mike] Huckabee because Thompson took too long to get out there," said state Representative Connie Soucey, a New Hampshire Republican who was named as Manchester cochair for Huckabee's campaign last week. "Honestly, Huckabee would have been my second choice, but all this waiting allowed me to see Huckabee. He took questions, answered with some meat, and I was really impressed. I need someone who will answer my question, and waiting to September or October was just not acceptable."
But lobbyist Bill Cahill, who will be part of Thompson's team in the Granite State, said he was thrilled.
"It was the announcement we have been waiting for," said Cahill.