With former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) taking an official step into the 2008 presidential fray last week, his early Capitol Hill backers are moving to formalize a whip organization and begin the process of wooing support and raising money for the “Law & Order” star.
Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), one of the most vocal cheerleaders for Thompson’s prospective candidacy, said he plans to huddle with a group of Members on the House floor this week and begin the process of organizing an operation.
“We can now formalize what we’ve been talking about for a number of months,” Wamp said Monday.
Thompson announced last week that he will begin raising money for a White House run and appears set to toss his hat in the ring. Wamp said he believes Thompson will run, and that he will “make the right announcement at the right time” — and also noted that a lot of people will be watching when Thompson appears as a guest on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on June 12.
“We’re going to begin organizing in the House this week just like he’s running,” Wamp said, predicting that support for Thompson would continue to grow. “You’ll see a whip effort. You’ll see more and more Members coming out and endorsing Fred Thompson.”
Among the House Republicans who already have declared their public support for Thompson or have attended initial organizational meetings are Reps. Gresham Barrett (S.C.), Jeff Miller (Fla.), Don Manzullo (Ill.), Steve Buyer (Ind.), Dan Burton (Ind.) and Sue Myrick (N.C.). The group will serve as the initial whip team, Wamp said.
Wamp said Barrett, who hails from the early primary state of South Carolina, already has begun putting together an organization in the state.
It remains to be seen whether Thompson’s entrance into the race will have an impact on any of the Members who already have pledged their support to other candidates — namely the three GOP frontrunners, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Recently, Tennessee GOP Reps. Marsha Blackburn and John Duncan switched their support from Romney to Thompson, and as Thompson’s campaign begins to look more real, other conservative Republicans — especially from the South — may follow suit.
Both Blackburn and Duncan, along with Rep. David Davis (R-Tenn.), also will be part of the whip effort. Blackburn had been Tennessee co-chairwoman of Romney’s campaign and a national co-chairwoman of Women for Romney.
Of the 27 Senators and House Members who have endorsed Romney, eight of them hail from Georgia, Alabama and Kentucky — all states that border Tennessee.
While it is widely debated which of the three GOP presidential frontrunners Thompson’s entrance in the race ultimately will hurt most, among Members it would appear he would hamper Romney’s ability to grow his support in the South and among the social conservatives he has courted.
Romney got off to a rapid and early start in the Congressional endorsement race, collecting the backing of many Southern Republicans in an effort to boost his conservative credentials.
For the time being, most appear to be sticking with Romney.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said nothing has changed for her boss.
“He’ll still be supporting Romney,” said Shea Snider.
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) said his support for Romney also remains rock solid, despite the strong encouragement Thompson has received from prominent Republicans in Georgia.
“I simply think he’s the right person at the right time,” Price said. “I don’t see anything that will change that.”
Thompson won the presidential straw poll at the Georgia Republican Convention last month. He garnered 188 votes, while former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who also is not officially in the 2008 contest, was second with 77 votes.
Also, a group called “Georgians for Fred Thompson” released a list of supporters last month that featured former Sen. Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.) and 33 state legislators, including the state Senate President and Majority Leader.
A spokesman for Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) was less emphatic about whether his support for Romney would hold if Thompson gets in the race.
“We’re not going to speculate whether Sen. Thompson gets in or does not,” said Whitfield spokesman Derek Fink. “As of right now, the Congressman is still supporting Gov. Romney.”
Wamp said he didn’t know how many, if any at all, of the committed Members might switch to Thompson. He also noted that many Members have been keeping their powder dry in hopes that the Tennessean would jump in.
He pointed to Florida as one state where he expects several Members will come out in support of Thompson, while others there may back other candidates but remain sympathetic.
He singled out Florida Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, both of whom are supporting McCain.
“They love Fred Thompson, that’s just a fact,” he said. “We’ve got friends that are in the other camps. I don’t know how many are going to switch.”
Florida also is a state where several major GOP donors have been sitting on the sidelines of the 2008 contest thus far.
Last week, the two-term former Senator formed Friends of Fred Thompson Inc. to begin raising money for a presidential bid.
Thompson, who also has announced he is leaving the “Law & Order” cast as he explores a White House run, consistently has finished third among possible GOP candidates in national polls.