For Republican Fred Thompson, the former actor turned reluctant politician, the first few months of his floundering bid to be U.S. president were just a warm-up act. Now it is showtime.
After a late start, poor reviews for a lackluster campaign and a slide in opinion polls sending him behind several rivals, he says he is ready to make his move in Iowa.
"People are paying attention now, people are focused," said Thompson, who launched a marathon Iowa bus tour this week ahead of January 3, when the state kicks off the race to choose the Republican and Democratic candidates for the November 2008 presidential election.
During a stop in Cedar Rapids, one of 50 Iowa towns and cities he plans to visit by January 3, Thompson told reporters this campaign reminded him of his first victorious U.S. Senate campaign in Tennessee.
"We saw dramatic movement in the last few weeks and I feel like we are going to see the same thing now," he said.
Thompson has been falling in polls since his delayed entry in September and a series of campaign-trail gaffes. He has been criticized for spending too little time campaigning. Some days, his entire schedule consists of a few call-in radio shows.
But a strong showing in Iowa after months of neglect could give Thompson new momentum. He has visited the state just eight times, less than any other Republican candidate except Texas Rep. Ron Paul, according to the political Web site Hotline.
Thompson, who starred on NBC's "Law and Order" show after leaving the Senate, entered the 2008 race to fill a void for conservatives unhappy with the Republican field.
But he has seen his political opportunities dwindle as a surging former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee filled the role of right-wing favorite.
"Thompson was a place to park for a while for all those Republicans who weren't happy with the other candidates," said Drake University political analyst Dennis Goldford, who noted he "entered the race with a resounding splat."
While Thompson has fallen well behind the pack in national polls, he is in a race for third in Iowa behind Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. A slip by either could give him a shot at a surprise.
Thompson's rivals for third in Iowa, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain, also have barely campaigned in the state while looking to later primary votes elsewhere across the country.
On the stump, Thompson has sharpened his message of lower taxes, limited government and a get-tough approach to illegal immigration, hoping to break through with Iowa's sizable bloc of conservatives.
In Cedar Rapids, several voters said they did not care about Thompson's late start or failure to commit early to a full-bore effort in Iowa.
"I don't hold that against him at all. I don't know why campaigns need to be so long," said Julie Schmitt, a homemaker from Marion with four children.
"He looks presidential, and he has pretty decent oratorical skills," she said. "He's conservative on social issues and I think he could win a general election."
Wayne Shaw, a retired insurance agent from Cedar Rapids, said he liked Thompson but was still considering Romney.
"He doesn't seem that energetic and that worries me," Shaw said of Thompson. "Being president takes a lot out of a person."
Earlier this week, Thompson picked up the backing of Rep. Steve King, who represents the heavily Republican western half of Iowa and holds considerable sway with the state's sizable bloc of social and religious conservatives.
But Thompson's late start could prove a handicap in organizing voter turnout efforts in Iowa, often a requirement for success in the state.
"If you are going to participate in the Iowa caucuses, you have to get on the ground and fight it out county by county," said Steve Roberts, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa. "He just hasn't done that so far."