From NBC's Lauren Appelbaum and NBC/NJ's Adam Aigner-Treworgy
In Newton, IA this morning, Thompson said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction at some time prior to the United States' involvement in Iraq.
"We can't forget the fact that although at a particular point in time we never found any WMD down there he clearly had had WMD," Thompson told a crowd of about 200 at the Midtown Cafe. "He clearly had had the beginnings of a nuclear program. And in my estimation his intent never did change. And by today, he clearly would have had that rejuvenated. Especially looking at what Iran said that it's doing."
More: "And what you would have had was a part of the world, sitting on all that oil and oil reserves that would be in danger of going much more nuclear than they are today. Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia that can afford pretty much anything it wants to afford, it's already got missiles from Pakistan, and could probably get much more than we would like it to get in terms of nuclear capability from Pakistan In response to what they were seeing going in their neighborhood. So that's what we averted and that's what we successfully averted."
On college education: 'I don't know'… again
Fred Thompson once again relied on his old "I don't know" defense when asked by a college-aged cook at cafe about a bill sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy meant to help make college more affordable. "Senator Kennedy's got so many bills," Thompson said. "I must say I don't know about the one you're probably talking about, but I know about your situation. I've been there."
Thompson, who put himself through college and law school in Tennessee while supporting his first wife and three children, said he paid off his college loans "about the same time my first child started college."
"I don't think we're in a position or we're ever going to be in a position where we can guarantee everyone four years of college from the federal treasury," Thompson said, adding that he was "mindful of the need for more education and better education in this country."
America's a Judeo-Christian nation
Speaking to reporters after the event, Thompson defended rival McCain's statement that the United States is a Christian nation. "Factually, the Judeo-Christian heritage of the United States is certainly a fact. I don't know what he said past that. But I think that is in fact the fact."
When asked if he would vote for a Muslim (McCain also said "it doesn't seem like a Muslim candidate would do very well"), Thompson said he would not rule anyone in or out. "You come with a particular candidate and a hypothetical situation in the future, I can't say that I would vote for or against anybody in any category."
But, he did bring in the current war on terror and America's hesitation toward Muslims. "Obviously, we have real, real problems," Thompson said. "We have a major long standing threat to this nation about radical Islam. There are a lot of Islamic individuals and citizens of this country who are not radical, who are very good citizens. I'm not going to categorically say that at any time in the future, I would or would not vote for anybody. "
Appeal to Conservatives
Thompson talked about a meeting he had with the Arlington Group and said he would be happy for any reporter to speak with them. "I talked about my background, where I was coming from, and to a certain extent myself as an individual," he responded. "I think we left there on very friendly terms, but they will have to answer that."
Appeal to Independents
Later in the day, Thompson addressed a sleepy crowd over lunch at Tremont on Main in Marshalltown, IA. The crowd of about 60 people seemed nonplused by the candidate's speech, treating it much like a lecture with little applause or laughter. Thompson was even forced to finish his speech by saying, "First of all can I have a round of applause," admitting that he had to "drag" it out of them. On the street after the lunch, two independent voters, Kathy Larson and Mary Brooks, said that they were pretty disappointed by what they heard.
"I have a couple friends who urged me to come to hear him because she said he crosses party lines," Larson said. "So I, in good faith, came. But I didn't hear specifics...no substance, you know, feel good. Well I don't feel good."
"He was so vague," Brooks added.
"And folksy and feel good, but that doesn't cut it," Larson said. "We really wanted to know about foreign policy, and I don't think he said much about it at all."
"I want to hear some diplomacy, not just force and action," Brooks said. "We're looking for the individual who's going to represent our country and not just continue on with this one-sided we are the most powerful country in the world. We're losing. We're losing respect."