DEARBORN, Mich. — Fred Thompson stayed on script.
The newcomer to the Republican presidential field didn’t stand out in his first debate of the 2008 race, but he didn’t blow it either.
An intense spat between GOP rivals Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani over taxes and spending took some of the focus — and the heat — off Thompson and overshadowed the other six Republicans on stage; Thompson was literally stuck between the two as they sparred.
“I’ve enjoyed watching these fellows. I gotta admit it was getting a little boring without me, but I’m glad to be here now,” Thompson said — and by the end of the two hours, it showed.
Analyst: Thompson's 'fine performance'
The debate — sponsored by CNBC and MSNBC — was an important test of Thompson’s maturity as a candidate, and he largely held his own.
A late entry to the race who has stumbled, Thompson was looking to counter the perception that he’s unprepared to be president.
“He had a fine performance,” said Sara Taylor, a former political adviser to President Bush who is neutral in the 2008 race. “He certainly passed the test of can he stand on the stage with these guys and articulate his views.”
Over the past month, Thompson has struggled to answer questions on a range of topics, from the Terri Schiavo right-to-life case to oil drilling in the Everglades. By many accounts, he has turned in an underwhelming campaign performance with a rambling, low-energy stump speech devoid of specifics.
But none of the gaffes that have marred his first month as a full-fledged candidate surfaced. He was wrong at one point, pegging the Democratic-controlled Congress’ job approval rating at 11 percent. It’s actually at 22 percent, according to a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll.
And, while Thompson pointed out that he belonged to the Screen Actors Guild, he missed the opportunity to say that Ronald Reagan was in the same union. In fact, Reagan served as SAG president from 1947-1952 and 1959-1960.
Thompson did, however, good-naturedly handle the ribbing he took for waiting until the sixth major Republican debate of the year to participate.
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“This is a lot like ‘Law & Order,’ senator. It has a huge cast, the series seems to go on forever, and Fred Thompson shows up at the end,” Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, quipped to laughter.
Thompson nodded and smiled — then shot back slyly: “Not bad, not bad. And to think I thought I was going to be the best actor on the stage!”
The veteran actor of “Law & Order” fame is no stranger to the small screen, and he went to great lengths to get ready for his performance with two weeks of mock debates and timed preparation sessions.
After stammering a bit as he answered his first question on the economy, Thompson clearly got more comfortable. He looked repeatedly at what appeared to be notes on his podium as he spoke — but less so as the debate continued. At some points, he even engaged in a few extemporaneous and light-hearted exchanges with his rivals.
Light on substance, specifics
Thompson was, however, light on substance and specifics as he fielded questions.
He stuck to broad statements of what’s wrong with the country and railed against big government but offered little in the way of how to fix the problems — much as he does during campaign appearances.
“Thompson cleared a hurdle today by showing he can rough-and-tumble with the best of them,” said Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist and veteran of presidential campaigns who is unaligned in this race.
However, he said: “The campaign is entering a policy and solutions phase that the Thompson campaign will have to catch up with in terms of putting forward ideas that will give people more hope, offering a bit more shining city on hill posture.”
With voting beginning in just three months, Thompson has little time to do it.
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