Arthur Branch is the kind of prosecutor that Republicans dream about. The blunt-spoken New York district attorney supports the death penalty, opposes abortion and espouses a conservative legal philosophy that infuriates liberal colleagues.
Unfortunately for Republicans, Mr Branch is a fictional character in Law & Order, the popular US television drama. But Fred Thompson, the actor who plays the role, is a real-life conservative whom many Republicans are counting on to breathe fresh life into the party’s 2008 presidential race.
Mr Thompson, who also starred in the films The Hunt for Red October and Cape Fear, joined the cast of Law & Order in 2002 towards the end of his eight-year stint as senator for Tennessee.
In the six weeks since he announced he was “giving some thought” to running for president, he has emerged as a serious threat to the leading Republican candidates – Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney – and a source of hope to conservatives dissatisfied with the current field.
Mr Thompson’s appeal is twofold. First, he is more reliably conservative than any of the frontrunners, boasting an 86 per cent approval rating from the American Conservative Union for his Senate voting record. Second, he possesses a folksy charm and powerful charisma that supporters liken to another actor-turned-politician: Ronald Reagan.
“There’s this indefinable ability to communicate easily with people that candidates either have or don’t have,” says Larry Sabato, politics professor at the University of Virginia. “JFK had it, Ronald Reagan had it, Barack Obama has it and so does Fred Thompson.”
He has yet to make a firm decision on whether to run but one recent opinion poll indicated he already holds second place in the race for the Republican nomination, behind Mr Giuliani.
Zach Wamp, a Republican congressman for Tennessee, believes Mr Thompson has the ability to unite the party base while also appealing to swing voters. “He will bring Reagan Democrats back to the Republican fold,” he says.
Bob Davis, chairman of the Tennessee Republicans and another Thompson cheerleader, says the actor’s Hollywood ties could even give the party a chance to carry California in the presidential election for the first time in two decades.
Two recent events have hardened the impression that Mr Thompson is preparing to take the plunge. He revealed he was suffering from lymphoma, an incurable form of cancer, but insisted that treatment would allow him to live a normal life – the kind of disclosure expected of an individual considering a run for public office. He also met about 60 lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week to gauge support and discuss his political vision.
Mr Thompson offers a refreshing alternative to declared candidates who have already begun to look stale. But Mr Sabato warns the window of opportunity for him to enter the contest is closing fast. “He has to be in the race by early-to-mid summer to have a chance of raising enough money.”