Fred Thompson and Iowa's Great Bull

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Joshua Lott / Reuters

Former Tennessee Senator and potential Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson (C) greets fairgoers at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, August 17, 2007.

He may not yet be an official candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, but after the day he spent at the Iowa State Fair Friday, Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson may as well be. Who else but a presidential wannabe, after all, would be escorted by the reigning Queen of Pork to see the fair's biggest bull, a 3,422-pound black bull named Lazar.

Like his rivals — Senator John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani — who skipped the Ames, Iowa straw poll for G.O.P. candidates last week, Thompson jetted into Des Moines and spent a couple of hours at the fair before heading off again. While pressing the flesh, he made sure to dismiss criticism that he has been waiting too long to enter the race. "I wasn't around when they made those rules and I'm not abiding by them," he said during a brief speech at the traditional fair soapbox. "We've got plenty of time."

Polls show Thompson placing second behind former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the Ames straw poll winner. Ames, though, gave a bump to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who is trying to claim the conservative mantle in the race — a title that Thompson was clearly aiming for in his soapbox speech when he proclaimed himself "strongly pro-life" and pro-gun rights.

While Iowa Republicans may be open to his candidacy, Thompson's late entry into an already crowded field of eight of candidates may present a logistical challenge, said Cary Covington, an associate professor of American politics at the University of Iowa. "He's looking at trouble because Iowa's a caucus state," Covington said. "Caucuses are won by grassroots organizing among county party officials. The other Republican candidates have long been busily getting these party officials to choose up sides and I don't know how many are left as free agents."

Such concerns didn't seem to weigh on Thompson's mind as he strode through the crowds at the fair. What did appear to bother him, at least initially, was the crush of media that surrounded him — his handlers kept barking at the press to stop asking questions. And Thompson took 30 minutes to collect himself in private after his first hour at the fair. He was visibly relieved when he met up with Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican who has yet to endorse a candidate and later showed him around the fair.

Thompson chatted amiably with Grassley about everything from sports to immigration to judicial nominees, pausing only at Grassley's urging to shake hands with fans. "We appreciate you sticking up for the U.S. We think you're right," one woman told Thompson. At the soapbox Thompson had voiced his impatience with the U.S. feeling that it has to apologize for every move in the world it makes. "This nation has shed more blood bringing peace to others," Thompson said. "I'm tired of apologizing for being the United State of America."

By the time Thompson had finished with that group, Grassley had found other fans for Thompson to greet. "Run, Fred, run!" one group yelled. "You better get over there and shake hands with those folks if they're gonna yell at you like that," Grassley said in his typical Iowan twang. "These folks follow you on Law and Order," he said, referring to the NBC show Thompson appeared in from 2002 until recently where he played the New York District Attorney. "Nothing but reruns from now on in, I'm afraid," Thompson said, a little wistfully.

Then the fair's reigning Pork Queen, Rita Cook, escorted the senators off to see Big Red, the fair's biggest boar. And while many jokes were made about pork barrel spending, Thompson was quick to stress that one of the central tenets of his campaign is a conservative push to cut spending — particularly from entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid which he called "gradually bankrupting future generations in this country." In his soapbox speech, he accused other G.O.P. candidates of ignoring the budget, "other than giving lip service to it," he said.

Lip service, in fact, is about all Thompson gave to the question of when he will formally enter the race. He himself summed up his day best when, looking mischievously at the press, he told Grassley: "They've been waiting all day for me to say something newsworthy and it hasn't happened yet."

"Something explosive, eh?" Grassley asked. "Or at least mildly interesting," Thompson responded, laughing.