Voters may be familiar with the they've seen on TV: the rugged bearing, the bloodhound eyes, the honey-baked drawl. But do they know what he stands for, what he thinks? What's in Fred's head?
A review of Thompson's record and public statements reveals him to be a small-government conservative who has moved rhetorically rightward on social issues. He also positions himself as a defense hawk, believes Americans are safer when armed and thinks the growing alarm about global warming is, well, a little silly.
At the heart of Thompson's views is his belief in federalism and his conviction that most decisions should be left to the states. He told FOX News' "Hannity and Colmes" in May, "I believe, generally speaking, that the federal government ought to concentrate on the enumerated powers" -- that is, powers laid out in the Constitution such as imposing taxes, printing money and providing for national defense. In the Senate, he voted consistently to limit the federal government's reach.
On other issues, Thompson's views appear to have grown more conservative over time.
Abortion. "I am pro-life. I have a 100 percent voting record on the pro-life issues," Thompson also said in the May interview on FOX. He has argued that Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that gave women the right to have an abortion, should be overturned, calling it "bad law and bad medicine" on another FOX News show. But he believes the federal government's role should be limited; in June, he told a newspaper that abortion is "a matter that should go back to the states. When you get back to the states, I think the states should have some leeway." Thompson also told the Weekly Standard that he opposes a constitutional amendment banning abortion.
Lately, his pro-life language has taken on a sharper edge. In June, he told a pro-life group that so-called partial birth abortion is "infanticide." He said he opposes stem cell research on pro-life grounds: "I am for adult stem cell research, not research where the embryos of unborn children are destroyed." The National Right to Life organization, which has always backed Thompson, calls him "a strong pro-life candidate."
Still, some less-than-certain abortion views lurk in his past statements and activities. The Los Angeles Times turned up records indicating that, as a lawyer 16 years ago, Thompson was paid $4,790 to do a little lobbying work for an abortion-rights group. Reporters combing through Thompson's personal papers, now housed at the University of Tennessee, found a 1994 questionnaire in which Thompson said, "The ultimate decision on abortion should be left with the woman and not the government."
And Newsweek came across a 1994 interview that Thompson gave to a Tennessee paper in which he called himself "certainly pro-life" but added, "I'm not willing to support laws that prohibit early term abortions.... It comes down to whether life begins at conception. I don't know in my own mind if that is the case, so I don't feel the law ought to impose that standard on other people."
Immigration. Thompson has become an immigration hawk, saying in June that it's time to forget about so-called comprehensive immigration "until the government can show the American people that we have secured the borders -- or at least made great headway." This spring, he told a Republican group, "This is our home, and we get to decide who gets to come into our home."
But here, too, there are glimmers of the Thompson whose Senate image was more moderate. Last year he told a FOX News interviewer that "there is no easy solution" to immigration. "You're either going to drive 12 million people underground permanently, which is not a good solution. You're going to get them all together and get them out of the country, which is not going to happen. Or you're going to have to, in some way, work out a deal where they can have some aspirations of citizenship, but not make it so easy that it's unfair to the people waiting in line abiding by the law," he said.
This year, he told FOX he was not talking about "amnesty or [anything] blanket like that. But figure out some way to make some differentiation between the kind of people that we have here."
Taxes: Thompson believes in the economic power of low taxes: He's blogged in praise of President Bush's tax cuts: "They've been so good for our country in so many ways. Letting them expire would amount to a tax hike of historic proportions." Later, he wrote, "The economy can only really grow when you let people keep more of what they earn." Yet he has indicated all taxes may not be equal. FOX News' Chris Wallace asked Thompson in March if he would reduce America's dependence on foreign oil by raising the gasoline tax. Thompson demurred, "Well, you're getting a little bit further down in the weeds than I want to go right now. I don't know. I'm studying it. I don't know the answer to that question."
Entitlement reform: Thompson argues fervently that Social Security and Medicare must be overhauled or they will bankrupt the country. He said he would have voted against adding the prescription drug benefit to Medicare. He will not say how he would fix Social Security but has hinted that current beneficiaries might have to give something up. He told the Weekly Standard that his plan "is based on the proposition that granddad and grandmom will be willing to sacrifice a little bit if they feel like it helps their grandkids avoid financial disaster and that their sacrifice is not going to be wasted down some government rathole."
Iraq war: Thompson calls for increased spending on defense and told Wallace in March that when it comes to the war in Iraq, "I would do essentially what the president's doing. I know it's not popular right now, but... we're the leader of the free world whether we like it or not. People are looking to us to test our resolve and see what we're willing to do in resolving the situation that we have there." He added if the U.S. hadn't removed Saddam Hussein, "things would be worse than what they are today."
He also told Republicans in a June speech that the U.S. is facing "a battle between the forces of civilization and the forces of evil, and we've got to choose sides." He warned that if the U.S. leaves Iraq "under bad circumstances, we're going to have a haven down there for terrorists. The whole area, I'm afraid, will become nuclearized."
Guns:. Thompson is an ardent supporter of gun rights and wrote in National Review Online that if Virginia Tech students aged 21 and older had been allowed to carry concealed weapons on campus, they might have saved themselves from the crazed gunman. Of the university administration, he wrote: "I challenge their decision to deny Americans the right to protect themselves on their campuses."
Global warming: He recently poked fun at growing worries about climate change, noting that temperatures on uninhabited planets also have been found to be rising. "This has led some people to wonder if Mars and Jupiter... are actually inhabited by alien SUV-driving industrialists who run their air conditioning at 60 degrees and refuse to recycle," he wrote.
What else is in Fred's head? We are about to find out.