Fred Thompson to take step toward formal candidacy next week

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Fred Thompson, a former Tennessee senator and "Law & Order" actor, will take a step toward a formal presidential candidacy next week, several officials with knowledge of the plans said Wednesday.

Thompson will form a "testing the waters" committee, which will allow him to begin raising money and hiring staff without officially committing to a White House bid. The creation of the committee, to be called "Friends of Fred Thompson," will be paired with the start of his first major fundraising push.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plans were not public, said Thompson is dicussing plans for a campaign swing through various early primary states in late June, and is considering several options for a formal announcement should he ultimately decide to enter the race. They said that one scenario under discussion, among others, would have him officially announce his candidacy over the July 4 holiday.

But these officials also cautioned that he's made no final decision about whether to run or where and when to get in the race should he decide to go forward.

Thompson has been an all-but-declared candidate for months, flirting with a candidacy following the creation of a Tennessee-based effort to draft him into the race.

A summertime announcement has been widely expected and numerous signs have pointed to a Thompson candidacy. Officials say it's more likely than not he will join the crowded GOP field that's led by Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

In recent weeks, Thompson has been hiring advisers, speaking to conservative groups, writing online columns on topics of the day and staking out positions on issues like the Senate immigration overhaul. He also is testing his pitch on the Internet and surrounding himself with officials who served in the Reagan administration and under George H.W. Bush.

Mark Corallo, a Thompson spokesman, did not immediately return calls for comment.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)