By LIZ SIDOTI
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Republican Fred Thompson, a former Tennessee senator and "Law & Order" actor, is methodically moving ahead with a likely presidential bid, several officials with knowledge of the plans said Wednesday.
An all-but-declared candidate for months, Thompson will establish an official organization next week to weigh a White House bid while launching his first major fundraising effort. He also may visit early primary states in late June and could officially enter the race as early as the first week in July, according to the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plans were not public.
Despite the movement, they cautioned that Thompson has made no final decision about whether to run or where and when to get in the race should he decide to go forward.
They said he is considering several options for a possible formal announcement, and that one scenario has him officially announcing his candidacy over the July 4 holiday. It's also possible, they said, that Thompson could wait until later in the summer to declare his intentions.
"Senator Thompson is still seriously considering getting into the presidential contest and he is doing everything he has to do to make that final decision," said Mark Corallo, a Thompson spokesman. "Stay tuned."
A summertime announcement has been widely expected and numerous signs have pointed to a Thompson candidacy, including his disclosure in April that he had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer, but is in remission. Officials say it's more likely than not he will join the crowded GOP field led by Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney.
Thompson has been competitive with the top-tier trio in national popularity polls, which largely measure name recognition early in the campaign. He is well-known nationally for his acting role as the gruff district attorney Arthur Branch on NBC's long-running drama "Law & Order."
His expected entrance in the race could dramatically shake up the GOP field but it's unclear exactly who among the top GOP candidates - Giuliani, McCain or Romney - would be affected the most by his candidacy.
Conservative voters aren't sold on any of them, which may give Thompson an opening. He's been casting himself as a straight-talking conservative in the mold of former President Reagan even though he took some positions that angered the base as a senator.
Thompson served in the Senate from 1994 to 2002, capturing the seat held by Al Gore in a special election. During his tenure, Thompson voted to oust President Clinton from office, but also was one of 10 Republican senators who voted against one of the two impeachment charges.
He supported campaign finance reform, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, elimination of funds for the National Endowment for the Arts and a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration. He also favored a ban on a late-term abortion procedure and voted against requiring criminal background checks for purchases at gun shows.
He was best known for his work on the Senate's investigative committees, focusing on Clinton's 1996 fundraising.
Thompson's candidacy could hurt Romney, who is trying to position himself to the right of the major candidates in the field despite his equivocations on various issues and outright position changes on others.
It's also possible that Thompson could pull support from McCain. They have similar records in the Senate, and Thompson could be seen as a fresher face. He was one of a handful of senators who backed cCain in 2000 over George W. Bush.
Giuliani could be hindered as well if Thompson grabs the attention of Republicans who are looking for a candidate to beat Democrats in the fall but are uneasy with the former New York City mayor's support for gay and abortion rights.
Thompson has openly flirted with a candidacy for months following the creation of a Tennessee-based effort to draft him into the race.
On Monday, he will form a "testing the waters" committee called "Friends of Fred Thompson," which will allow him to begin raising money, hire staff and gauge support without officially committing to a White House bid. Fundraising is to start that day as well.
Thompson spoke on a conference call Wednesday to several dozen people who officials said committed to raising money for him.
Participants said they were asked to raise $46,000 apiece, the $2,300 maximum from 10 couples or 20 people. And, he will give a speech to Virginia Republicans in Richmond on Saturday.
In recent weeks, Thompson has been addressing conservative groups, writing online columns on topics of the day and staking out positions on issues such as the Senate immigration overhaul bill.
He also is testing his pitch on the Internet and surrounding himself with officials who served in the Reagan administration and under George H.W. Bush.
Earlier this month, Thompson closed down a political action committee he had been operating since 2003. The committee donated to several federal candidates, but spent most of its money, $180,000, on a management and consulting contract with a firm run by his son, Daniel Thompson of Nashville, Tenn.
In 2006, the PAC gave to moderate Republicans and Democrat-turned-independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)