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SENATOR’S PAST AS ACTOR HELPS HIM UPSTAGE CLINTON

SHARE SENATOR’S PAST AS ACTOR HELPS HIM UPSTAGE CLINTON

DUELING TAX CUTS, Washington's newest drama, made its debut Thursday with the president's prime-time address from the Oval Office. But as so often happens in show business, a supporting player stole the show from the star.

Sitting casually on a desk and speaking a scant five minutes, the nation's newest senator, Fred Thompson of Tennessee, delivered a GOP rebuttal that had all the focus, intimacy and conviction that Clinton's impersonation of a Republican lacked.Bob Dole, who chose Thompson for a role that might conceivably have gone to Newt Gingrich or Dole himself, did not cite the new senator's experience as an occasional movie actor as a factor in his decision. But surely Thompson's Hollywood past didn't hurt. He wrote his own script and served as his own director. For an acting method he chose Ronald Reagan's, not Lee Strasberg's.

"Regardless of whether you agreed with his politics, you knew Reagan was sincere in what he said," Thompson said over the phone this week. "To appear believable, you have to really believe."

Anyone who thought that actor-politicians went out of fashion with the retirement of Reagan's cue cards is wrong. At a moment when C-Span is poised to expand its coverage of the Capitol Hill circus and performance skills count at least as much as ideas on "Crossfire," a talent like Thompson is a hotter property than ever.

Among his fans is Alec Baldwin, who acted with him in "The Hunt for Red October."

Baldwin does not share the senator's politics but views him as "a great rising star" because he has the actor's knack of "keeping a little bit of an eye on yourself." Most politicians, Baldwin explains, "don't have a sense of how they come across. Phil Gramm doesn't see that he comes across as an ugly, petty, small man, not a great man. Mondale and Dukakis didn't know that when they spoke they blew ether in your face."

Other Thompson admirers include the outgoing GOP congressman Fred Grandy, once Gopher of "The Love Boat," and the incoming Sonny Bono, once Sonny of you-know-what.

They both envy the fact that Thompson's screen roles were modeled on his principal career, as a trial lawyer - which means he didn't have to overcome a lightweight TV image when moving into politics.

"If you play Moses, then you can be president," says Bono. "If you're a straight man like myself or Grandy, the voters have a problem accepting you as someone else."

One theatrically minded politician who is trying to upgrade his image is Gingrich. A week from Thursday will ditch the brassy lounge-performer persona he perfected in the fringe arena of the conservative cable network NET, and will instead play Alistair Cooke by introducing "Boys Town" on TNT.

It's the Democrats, however, who most desperately need a director. While even Thompson considers the president an "excellent" performer, Clinton's inability to find an original script and stick to it undercuts his acting skills. And when it comes to drafting new actor candidates, the Democrats are hopeless.

While almost every Republican actor-politician since George Murphy has won, Democrats lose - from Ralph Waite of "The Waltons" to Nancy Kulp of "The Beverly Hillbillies" to Gingrich's most recent opponent, Ben Jones of "The Dukes of Hazzard."

One who could be a contender is Baldwin, who has been approached to run for Congress and is an impressive campaigner for causes and candidates (Edward Kennedy). But though possessed by "a deep, deep interest" in public service, Baldwin is now "gun-shy" about seeking office because he doesn't like being automatically demonized as "just a shallow, publicity-seeking actor who is fed lines."

Baldwin may be too virtuosic an actor to succeed in politics anyway. As Grandy points out, it is Thompson's very limitations that make him credible: "Fred Thompson is a very convincing Fred Thompson; no one's going to ask him to play Lear."

But Fred Thompson was all it took to upstage the president last week, in a particularly dramatic example of how the Republicans have their act together and the Democrats do not.