WASHINGTON, Oct 5 (Reuters) Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson is not letting himself get bogged down in a lot of details on the campaign trail and many Republicans are wondering how long he can get away with it.
One month into his late-starting campaign, Thompson has generated some fairly strong showings in the polls -- second place in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this week, at 23 percent to 30 per cent for the Republican front-runner, Rudy Giuliani.
Despite an acting career that gives him a natural gravitas, Thompson's campaign appearances are being panned by national reporters as less than dynamic. And he has flubbed the answers to some relatively predictable questions.
All this has some Republicans and political experts wondering if he will find his groove, or whether his campaign is going to fizzle.
''There's no question he can win,'' said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. ''But he has got to shake the rust off. He was a very fine political candidate in 1994 (when he won a Senate seat). But he hasn't run a serious race in 13 years, and it's taking a while.'' Thompson goes into his first debate against his Republican rivals next Tuesday in Michigan, and the story line will be how well Fred holds up under the harsh glare of some sharp questioning.
Thompson is already low-balling his chances.
''I will do my best, but I'm not used to that. And these guys are very polished and good at what they do. So I will just try to hang in there with them as best I can,'' he told Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity.
Campaign spokesman Todd Harris dismisses the criticism and says the folksy Thompson is doing just fine, with enthusiasm such that he is raising an average of 0,000 a day from 70,000 individual donors.
''Our campaign is doing great with voters across the country with the sole exception of reporters living in and around the 202 area code,'' Harris said, referring to the telephone prefix for Washington.
The impression persists, however, that Thompson has yet to find his footing despite spending the entire summer ''testing the waters'' and deciding to run based on the conservative themes of strong defense, low taxes and less-intrusive government.
Just this week, Thompson was tooling around Iowa in a bus and talking by cell phone to Radio Iowa about the need to keep the pressure on Iran to give up nuclear ambitions that Tehran denies is aimed at developing a bomb.
The problem, he said, is that ''the Soviet Union and China'' are not willing to pressure the Iranians.
A slip-up like mistaking Russia for the extinct Soviet Union is not all that remarkable in the United States.
But Republicans were surprised that Thompson, during a campaign trip to Florida, was unable to recall details of the case of Terry Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman who in 2005 was at the center of a politically charged right-to-die battle in the state.
He also seemed caught by surprise at a question about a hot-button issue in Florida -- whether to drill for oil in the Everglades. And he did not know a federal judge had ruled that lethal injection procedures in his home state of Tennessee were unconstitutional.
Rather than outline specifics of what he would do if elected, the 65-year-old Thompson has stuck to broad generalities.
Republican strategists, speaking anonymously because they like Thompson and want a Republican to win in November 2008, are less kind, calling the campaign a disaster.
''The truth is he has no campaign message right now,'' said a veteran strategist. ''Until he gets one, he's going to have a tough time. I'm not the only one saying that.'' Thompson has been spending some time in the early voting state of Iowa. Peverill Squire, a University of Iowa political expert, said he has received mixed reviews.
''I think there are some people who find his sort of lackadaisical-style sort of appealing, but I think it worries others,'' said Squire. ''He probably needs a bit more work on his campaign before he's ready to really hold his own with the voters.'' REUTERS PDT KP2242