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RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - Republican Fred Thompson, making his first appearance since his late entry into the 2008 White House race, criticized the immigration pact in Congress on Saturday and said the United States was battling threats from "forces of evil."
In a speech at a Virginia state party dinner, the conservative former Tennessee senator and Hollywood actor made only passing reference to his presidential ambitions but took a jab at Democrats while praising limited government and lower taxes.
"There are all kinds of threats out there in America," Thompson said, citing a disrupted plot at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York as the latest example. He said the United States must send a message to its allies about the dangers of terrorism.
"This is a battle between the forces of civilization and the forces of evil and we've got to choose sides," Thompson said.
Thompson took the first formal step toward running on Friday with the formation in Tennessee of a committee that will allow him to hire staff and raise money for a presidential campaign.
His late candidacy, fueled in part by conservative dissatisfaction with the 10 official Republican candidates, has stirred heavy interest among curious activists and could fill a void for conservatives.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has led the field for months ahead of Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But many conservatives are dissatisfied with all three top contenders and Thompson already runs third in many national polls, ahead of Romney.
Thompson has broad name recognition from years as a Hollywood actor in movies like "The Hunt for Red October" and his just-concluded role of a district attorney on NBC's "Law and Order."
He won a standing ovation from the dinner crowd of more than 450 in Richmond with a call for stronger borders and an attack on the immigration compromise pending in Congress, and backed by President George W. Bush, that would give 12 million illegal immigrants a shot at citizenship.
"This is our home and we get to decide who can come into our home," he said.
He said Washington's partisan politics had bred cynicism about government and there was a "disconnect" between Washington politicians and Americans.
Thompson, a supporter of the Iraq war, also criticized the Democratic-controlled Congress for its debate on bills that would set withdrawal deadlines and timetables for U.S. troops in Iraq.
"The only real debate going on in Congress is what our surrender date is going to be," he said. "This is what passes for policy in the Democratic Party."
Thompson's only reference to his White House run was an aside after saying Republicans were on a comeback that would take "us" to the White House. He explained to laughter that the us meant "Republicans collectively."
Some of those in attendance said they liked what they heard from Thompson and hoped he could be the answer to their search for a candidate in 2008.
"I am not satisfied with the current set of candidates," said Keith Damon of Fairfax, Virginia. "I'm a conservative Republican and I'm looking for a conservative Republican.
"I liked everything he said but I'm not ready to commit. He definitely could be the answer."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also is considering a late entry in the Republican presidential race and will make a decision in the fall.
Thompson was Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate committee in the early 1970s before launching his acting career. He served eight years in the Senate but declined to run again in 2002.