Fred Thompson, making his second appearance on “The Tonight Show” in three months told Leno, to sustained applause Wednesday night, “I’m running for president of the United States.”
Thompson, a former senator and one-time star of NBC’s “Law & Order,” made his official entry into the Republican primary race several months later than his challengers; doing so, in fact, the same night that eight of them faced off Wednesday during a Fox News debate in New Hampshire.
Thompson spent nearly half his time with Leno on Wednesday explaining his timing.
“You were here in June, and you said you were testing the waters,” said Leno. “You’ve been in the water a while now. Are you starting to get a little wrinkly?”
“Those wrinkles don’t come from the water,” Thompson quipped, just before making his big announcement.
The candidate said he first started discussing his presidential run with his family in March and noted that, in elections past, candidates waited until after Labor Day before officially throwing their hats into the ring.
“I don’t think people are going to say, ‘you know that guy would make a very good president, but he just didn’t get in soon enough,’” Thompson told an enthusiastic audience.
The other candidates got in too early, Thompson suggested. People would rather treat politicians like dentists and not “have anything to do with them till they have to.”
Besides, he said, “The nation is not going to be hurt by having one more good person step into the race.”
Thompson told Leno that conversations with his family got him “thinking about what kind of world and what kind of country our kids would grow up in, and how many people have a chance to do something about it. I decided it was time for me to step up.”
Meanwhile in New Hampshire, rivals were ribbing Thompson during their debate several hours before the taped “Tonight Show” even aired.
“I was scheduled to be on Jay Leno tonight, but I gave up my slot for somebody else because I’d rather be in New Hampshire with these fine people,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
“I think he’s done a really good job of playing my part on ‘Law & Order,'” joked former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was once also a U.S. attorney. “I personally prefer the real thing.”
Back at NBC studios in Burbank, Thompson was getting some licks in himself. “It’s a lot more difficult to get on ‘The Tonight Show’ than it is to get into a presidential debate,” he said to an agreeable Leno.
Thompson’s announcement Wednesday was not exactly a surprise to political pundits. Rush Limbaugh told his millions of listeners Wednesday morning, about 12 hours before “The Tonight Show” was set to air, that he was opposed to Thompson’s chosen venue.
“I’m not crazy about presidential candidates announcing their candidacy on these late night shows,” Limbaugh said, adding that it wouldn’t be quite as bad if they’d also appear once they were elected.
“You know damn well that presidents don’t go on ‘The Tonight Show.’ So why should they as candidates? When you link the stature of that office to the pop culture, I don’t think the damage is instantaneous, but it’s just a slow erosion of the stature of the office,” Limbaugh said.
While much of Thompson’s time with Leno Wednesday night was spent joking around, the two got serious for a few moments, in part spurred by Leno lamenting that the U.S. isn’t as well liked by other countries as it once was.
“What are we doing wrong?” Leno asked.
“Our people have shed more blood for the liberty and freedom of other peoples than all the other countries put together,” Thompson said, drawing perhaps the night’s loudest applause.
The candidate defended the war in Iraq, called Islamic militants “maniacs” and said “the good guys need to be on one side” in the worldwide battle against tyranny.
He also steered viewers to his Web site, www.fred08.com, which features a 15-minute video announcement of his candidacy, and he told Leno that he and his family were off to campaign in Iowa.
Before leaving, though, he addressed his complaints from critics who claim that he has been delaying his presidential announcement in order to avoid the rigors of campaigning. He reminded the audience he was twice elected senator in Tennessee, a state carried twice by Democrat Bill Clinton.
“I must like campaigning enough to get the job done,” he said.
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