Former senator launching fund-raising drive

In the surest sign yet that he will jump into the presidential race, actor and former senator Fred Thompson is taking the initial first steps toward forming a fund-raising apparatus.

But another indicator came Wednesday when he officially informed “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf that he would not return to the show next season.

“I’ve spoken to Fred today, and although he told me he has not made a firm decision about his political future, he felt that given the creative and scheduling constraints of the upcoming season, he asked to be released from his responsibilities to the show,” Wolf said in a statement.

Thompson has played district attorney Arthur Branch for the past five seasons.

On Monday, he is going to establish the official organization to “test the waters” on a White House bid and at the same time launch a major fund-raising drive, Republican sources told the Associated Press and other media outlets. He may officially enter the race as early as the first week in July.

With his biggest boosters promoting Thompson’s Reagan-esque qualities, his entree would bring a wildcard to a race that has left some conservatives wanting. Rudolph Giuliani has drawn doubts that he could win the party’s nomination because of his support for abortion and gay rights, among other issues. John McCain has fallen short of fund-raising goals and has been weighed down to an extent by his staunch support for the troop surge in Iraq. And Mitt Romney has come under fire for switching positions on issues including abortion.

Although, like Reagan, Thompson earned much of his fame as an actor, it’s uncertain just how much support he can expect from the entertainment industry, particularly when it comes to fund-raising.

Many major Republican fund-raisers are already committed to candidates. MGM chief Harry Sloan, for instance, is backing McCain. On Wednesday night, Giuliani was to appear at the Beverly Hills Hotel for a fund-raiser to be emceed by Dennis Miller.

And although Thompson has a long list of film and TV credits, he’s hardly a product of Hollywood, having migrated to the business in the mid-1980s after he played himself in the movie “Marie.” Before that, he had worked as a lawyer and lobbyist, serving as co-chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee from 1973 to 1974. He served in the Senate from 1994 to 2003.

But, at least in the initial stage, Thompson’s celebrity will earn him extensive media exposure on platforms beyond “Law & Order” reruns and an appearance as Ulysses S. Grant in the HBO movie “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” He is scheduled to appear on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on June 12.

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