McCain & Thompson: Between Friends

If Fred Thompson jumps into the presidential race for 2008, the former Tennessee senator turned actor will be taking on one of his closest friends and allies: John McCain. The two men sat next to each other on the Senate floor. Thompson was one of McCain's staunchest supporters—and one of his few GOP backers—on campaign-finance reform. Back in 2000, Thompson was national co-chair and an adviser to McCain's presidential campaign and was expected to perform a similar role this time around. A mutual friend of the two senators, who declined to be named so as not to inflame either side, tells NEWSWEEK that Thompson was making calls on McCain's behalf to potential donors and supporters (including Tennessee politicos) as recently as January. But with polls showing widespread discontent among Republicans with the party's current crop of candidates, friends (including former Senate majority leader Bill Frist) are urging Thompson to consider his own run.

Two days before going on Fox News Sunday last March to announce that he was thinking of running, Thompson called McCain to alert him. Neither side will disclose exactly what the two men discussed, but McCain, speaking to reporters last week during his formal announcement tour, confirmed that he has spoken to Thompson about a potential bid a few times—though he has given Thompson no advice. "It's obvious he's giving it serious consideration, but I don't know where he is in the decision making," McCain said. "He's a very close friend ... We see each other frequently." Asked if he would lose some supporters to a Thompson bid, McCain paused, then admitted, "I don't know."

It's unclear, even to his closest friends, how much McCain figures into Thompson's calculations. Publicly, Thompson has gone out of his way to insist that his ambitions are "not really a reflection on the current field." But with McCain and Thompson so closely aligned on many issues, it's hard not to view the former senator's flirtation with the White House as a slam. Like McCain, Thompson had a reputation as a maverick during his time in the Senate, though he voted for conservative positions 86 percent of the time, according to the American Conservative Union. (McCain has an 84 percent rating.) Thompson voted to go to war in Iraq in 2002 and supports the surge. Like McCain, he wants to leave gay marriage up to the states and has voiced support for an immigrant-worker program, though he has endorsed beefing up border security first. The main difference: Thompson doesn't have the baggage McCain has with many conservatives, who don't trust the Arizona senator. "He's viewed as just too unpredictable," says the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land, who has praised Thompson as a "Southern-fried Reagan." Both McCain and Thompson say that their relationship will remain intact. "If we do this," Thompson told The Weekly Standard, "we'll remain friends and we'll be friends after this." Echoes McCain, "He's a good friend ... I think we'll run respectable campaigns."