Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson was onstage in Las Vegas on Thursday morning with a disco ball overhead, a mechanical bull to his left, beer signs dotting the walls and tank-topped bartenders serving coffee to the audience.
Thompson, the former Tennessee senator and actor best known for "Law & Order," appeared in Nevada for the first time in his candidacy at a 9 a.m. breakfast at a Texas-themed honky-tonk, Stoney's Rockin' Country on Las Vegas Boulevard South. It not being a Friday or Saturday night, bikini bull riding was not under way.
In his famous rumbling baritone, the candidate cracked a couple of Vegas jokes, such as, "I'm not a high roller, but I'm trying my best to make the acquaintance of as many as I can while I'm here."
Thompson took Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton to task for her unclear remarks about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants in a debate earlier this week. But for the most part, his 13-minute speech, after which he shook a few hands and headed out of town, was long on fundamental principles and short on specifics.
"Life is full of surprises," he said. "I never thought that I would see Joe Torre as the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and I never thought I'd see Hillary Clinton get pinned down and have to answer a controversial question."
On Tuesday night in Philadelphia, Clinton resisted taking a stand when asked about a New York state proposal to issue licenses to illegal immigrants. The following day, her campaign said she supported the proposal's goals. Both Democrats and Republicans have heaped criticism on Clinton both for her perceived evasion and for her position on the issue.
"She finally came out and said in fact it was a good idea to give illegals driver's licenses. Can you imagine?" Thompson said. Because many states register people to vote when they get licenses, "you know what that's going to lead to," he said.
He added, "It took her 12 hours to get the wrong answer for America this time. She usually doesn't take that long to come up with the wrong answer for America, so maybe things are improving a little bit."
Thursday's event was part fundraiser, part campaign rally. Those who contributed $100 to the Nevada Republican Party got breakfast, while the general public was invited in for free.
There appeared to be fewer than 100 people in the audience, although the party said it counted 100 paid attendees alone. The bar is co-owned by a son of state GOP Chairwoman Sue Lowden.
Besides the shots at Clinton, Thompson's speech seemed mainly intended to soothe, telling the party faithful they shouldn't be worried about the 2008 election. As long as Americans understand what Republicans stand for, he said, "We'll do fine next year."
He called himself "a proud what I call common-sense conservative all my life," saying his philosophy was based on "fundamental propositions, things that don't change in a changing world."
That was perhaps an implicit dart at other Republicans in the race who have migrated rightward from moderate positions they have taken in the past. Thompson's consistency has also been called into question.
In selecting a president, he said, Americans should consider this scenario: "When our worst enemy sits down at the negotiating table and looks across the table and is trying to decide about the United States of America, how much can they get away with? How much of what they're hearing is really true, or is it just bluster? Does the guy mean what he says on the other side of the table? The question is who do we want on the other side of that table. That's the fundamental question."
Thompson ridiculed other Republican candidates who have invoked Ronald Reagan, saying the man he called "the Dutchman" was probably "smiling and looking down and thinking, 'Who are these guys?' "
Thompson then made his own pitch for the Reagan mantle. "He was a great communicator not because of that acting ability, but because he was so believable," he said. "And he was believable because he believed. He believed so strongly in basic principles and he stuck with them."
A candidate who does that again will win over Republicans, independents and Democrats alike, he said.
"Have faith in the Lord and have faith in the American people, and we'll be just fine in the end," he concluded.
Audience members were divided when asked what they thought of the candidate.
Thomas Larmore, a 42-year-old lawyer, said he was expecting more and that Thompson "wasn't specific enough." He said Thompson, who has been criticized for less-than-energetic campaigning, "looked tired."
Larmore said, "I want to know where he stands on the issues. I heard a lot of platitudes. I want to know where he's different from (former New York Mayor Rudy) Giuliani."
Larmore said he strongly disagreed with Giuliani's views on social issues, but "Giuliani's got a lot more energy. He's got a powerful personality."
On the other hand, Jean Crevelt and her husband were Thompson fans to begin with and saw nothing to dissuade them.
"He was very direct in his points, and I liked what he said about standing true to his principles," said Crevelt, 47, who owns a winery with her husband, Dwight. "What he says, he means. He just seems true to his word."
Crevelt said she was also impressed with Thompson's acting work.
"I've been a fan of him since 'The Hunt for Red October,' " she said.
Contact reporter Molly Ball at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 387-2919.