Fred Thompson officially entered a wide-open Republican presidential race Thursday, vowing to invigorate a dispirited GOP and promising to thwart another Clinton from capturing the presidency.
The former Tennessee senator harkened to the GOP glory days of 1994 when he and other Republicans seized control of Congress and established an equal counterpoint to Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House. Now an official candidate for the Republican nomination, Thompson promised to return the party to better times.
"In 1992, we were down after a Clinton victory," Thompson said in a 15-minute Webcast that laid out the rationale for the candidacy he also declared on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno.
"In 1994, our conservative principles led us to a comeback and majority control of the Congress. Now, you don't want to have to come back from another Clinton victory. Our country needs us to win next year, and I am ready to lead that effort," he said.
Thompson also swiped at his leading Republican rivals, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, without naming them, saying: "In 1994, when I first ran, I advocated the same commonsense conservative positions that I hold today."
Thirteen years ago, Giuliani was a New York mayor who espoused liberal-to-moderate positions on social issues and endorsed Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo. Romney was a moderate challenging Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in liberal Massachusetts.
Today, some conservatives question Giuliani's and Romney's credentials -- and Thompson sees an opening for his candidacy.
Thompson, 65, enters an extraordinarily fluid race four months before voting begins. While Giuliani leads in national polls, Romney maintains an edge in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Overall, Republican voters have expressed less satisfaction with their choices than Democrats, and Thompson, who ranks strongly in GOP surveys, is maneuvering to become the favorite of a GOP base that is searching for someone with right-flank bona fides who can win in a general election.
His quest won't be easy.
Low Fundraising, Staff Departures
As he prepared to join the campaign, Thompson was plagued by lackluster fundraising; high-profile staff departures, including some prompted by the deep involvement in the campaign by his wife, Jeri; and less-than-stellar performances at campaign events. He also has endured repeated questions about his career as a lobbyist, his thin Senate record and his record on abortion.
Going forward, he faces not only finance and organization hurdles but also the challenge of living up to his supporters' sky-high expectations. They have painted him as the second coming of Ronald Reagan and the would-be savior of a Republican Party demoralized after electoral losses last year at all levels of government.
After months of playing coy, the veteran actor launched his candidacy Hollywood style and with a multiphase campaign roll out. He confirmed his bid to Leno in Los Angeles -- "I'm running for president of the United States" -- while his eight rivals gathered in New Hampshire to debate without him. Then, he released the online video. A tour of early primary states begins Thursday afternoon in Iowa.
On Leno's show, Thompson called Giuliani, Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain formidable but added: "I think I will be, too" as he rejected the notion that he was jumping in too late. Poking at his rivals, who have been running since January, he added: "If you can't get your message out in a few months, you're probably not ever going to get it out."
In the online video, Thompson emphasized his longtime adherence to states' rights, limited government and individual liberties. He also countered the perception that he is unwilling to do the hard work necessary to run for office, much less serve as president. "I'm going to give this campaign all that I have to give," he promised.
Thompson also portrayed himself as capable of addressing "grave issues affecting the safety and security of the American people and our economic well being."
On foreign policy and national security, he said: "The specter of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of our worst enemies continues to grow, and still we have yet to really come to terms with the nature and extent of the threat we are facing from radical Islamic terrorism."
"Iraq and Afghanistan are current fronts in this war and the world watches as our will is tested," he continued. "We must do everything in our power to achieve success."
On domestic issues, he called for reforming Washington, criticized a politicized Congress and bemoaned "a bureaucratized government that is increasingly unable or unwilling to carry out basic governmental functions, including the fundamental responsibility of securing our borders against illegal immigration and enforcing our laws."
"I do not accept it as a fact of life beyond our power to change that the federal government must go on expanding more, taxing more, and spending more forever," he added.
An actor for decades, Thompson is perhaps best known as the gruff district attorney Arthur Branch on NBC's "Law & Order," and for his roles in more than a dozen movies.
During his 1994-2002 Senate tenure, he was considered a reliably conservative vote. However, he strayed from the party line on a few issues, including advocating for campaign finance reform.
Thompson also spent many years in Washington as a lawyer and lobbyist. He has faced repeated questions about his lobbying work for a family planning group that sought to relax an abortion rule, and for former leftist Haitian leader Jean Bertrand-Aristide.