Prominent evangelical leaders who spent the summer hoping Fred Thompson would emerge as their favored Republican presidential contender are having doubts as he begins his long-teased campaign.
For social conservatives dissatisfied with other GOP choices, the "Law & Order" actor and former Tennessee senator represents a Ronald Reagan-like figure, someone they hope will agree with them on issues and stands a chance of winning.
But Thompson's less-than-clear stance on a federal gay marriage amendment and his delay in entering the race are partly responsible for a sudden shyness among leading evangelicals.
"A month or two ago, I sensed there was some urgency for people to make a move and find a candidate," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based conservative Christian group. "Right now, I think people are stepping back a little and watching. The field is still very fluid."
To soon for a decision
A loose network of influential evangelical leaders known as the Arlington Group met privately Wednesday and Thursday in Washington to discuss presidential politics and other issues, participants said.
Although the group does not endorse candidates, individual members have done so in the past, and one of the organization's founding principles is to get the movement's leaders on the same page when possible.
Some in the meeting shared their presidential leanings, but the consensus was that more time is needed to gauge Thompson's performance, according to a participant.
A clearer picture may develop Oct. 19-21 during a "Values Voter Summit" in Washington that will include a presidential straw poll.
In June, Thompson met privately with several Arlington Group members, many of whom are uncomfortable with the GOP top tier for various reasons: Arizona Sen. John McCain for championing campaign-finance overhaul and labeling some evangelical figures "agents of intolerance"; former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for backing abortion rights and gay rights; and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for his social-issue policy reversals and - for some members - his Mormon faith.
A crucial September
With the post-Labor Day primary push under way, the 65-year-old Thompson faces a crucial month to prove he is the best alternative for a key GOP constituency.
"He's got a real opportunity to be the most credible conservative candidate across the board," said Gary Bauer, a one-time presidential aspirant who heads the advocacy group American Values. "Whether he can put it all together remains to be seen. But he's got a real chance to emerge as the major conservative alternative to Giuliani."
Others are skeptical about whether Thompson can fill that role.
Rick Scarborough, a Southern Baptist preacher and president of Texas-based Vision America, said that while he is encouraged by Thompson's strong voting record in the Senate against abortion, he questioned the candidate's commitment to social issues.
"The problem I'm having is that I don't see any blood trail," Scarborough said. "When you really take a stand on issues dear to the heart of social conservatives, you're going to shed some blood in the process. And so far, Fred Thompson's political career has been wrinkle-free."
Thompson's long-delayed entry is another concern, Scarborough said. "The hesitancy has made us wonder whether he has the stomach for what it's going to take," he said.
Earlier this summer, doubts crept in following reports on Thompson's role in crafting campaign finance reform and stories that he lobbied for an abortion rights group.
More recently, Thompson has come under scrutiny for his position on a constitutional amendment on gay marriage, a defining issue for the Christian right.
Thompson told CNN in August that he supports an amendment that would prohibit states from imposing their gay marriage laws on other states. That falls well short of what evangelical leaders want: an amendment that would bar gay marriage nationwide.
Thompson's position surprised evangelical leaders who say they met with him in June and came away thinking he shared their desire for a more sweeping constitutional change. Now, they wonder if he is flip-flopping.
One person in attendance - Mathew Staver of the Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based conservative legal group - said Thompson described going back and forth about the merits of an amendment prohibiting gay marriage nationwide.
"At one time, he said he was against it," Staver said. "Then he said in June he was for it. So if now he's saying he's against it, to me that's a double-minded person. And that would be a real concern for religious conservatives."
Messages left with Thompson campaign were not returned.
'Masterful retail politician'
Several Christian right leaders said opposition to a broad amendment would hurt Thompson with evangelicals, but not necessarily cause irreparable harm. Others played down the issue, pointing out that their favored approach was politically impossible anyway because Democrats control the House and Senate.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said Thompson's position is consistent with the former senator's support for limited federal government and giving power to the states.
Land said it is healthy that expectations for Thompson have diminished from unrealistic levels and he does not think evangelical excitement has dimmed for a man he described as a "masterful retail politician."
Many evangelical leaders said one of Thompson's biggest draws is his perceived electability. Some are watching whether former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, can build on his second place finish last month in the Iowa straw poll.
Tim Wildmon, president of the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association, said that while he likes Huckabee, Thompson's better name recognition and fundraising potential is a strong draw for evangelicals.
"This is a dilemma a lot of people have," Wildmon said. "They want to support the candidate that most reflects their values. "But at the same time, you have to balance that against finding someone who can actually win."