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updated 1/12/2008 12:54:07 AM ET 2008-01-12T05:54:07

John and Ann Berenberk dutifully watched the umpteenth Republican presidential debate on television on Thursday night and had an epiphany. It was about the candidate they had previously referred to as the tall, silent one. Fred D. Thompson.

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The last of the candidates to enter the race, Mr. Thompson, 65, a former Tennessee senator, has so far seemed to distinguish himself mainly by a laconic style that has made him almost invisible beside the others on the stage in past debates, the Berenberks said.

“But then last night — we hadn’t even been thinking about him — all of a sudden it was clear he was the one,” said Mr. Berenberk, a retired teacher. “The bluntness, the forcefulness. He was really impressive.”

Whether this was a new Fred Thompson, or just a sign of mirage-inducing campaign fatigue among voters, many people attending Mr. Thompson’s campaign rallies here on the day after the debate reported having similar revelations.

Mr. Thompson, who remarked Friday that he had “always been laid back — laid back when I became a U.S. prosecutor at 28, laid back when I became staff counsel to the Watergate committee at 30, laid back when I ran and won election twice to the United States Senate” — was clearly more combative on Thursday night than he had been in past debates.

He attacked former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, accusing him of stealing his tax plan, tagged Senator John McCain of Arizona as soft on illegal immigration and jabbed repeatedly at former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas for taking what he called “liberal” positions. Mr. Thompson scored one of the more crowd-pleasing remarks of the evening when he said about a recent encounter between a Navy ship and several Iranian speedboats: “I think one more step and they would have been introduced to those virgins they’re looking forward to seeing.”

In an official statement, a campaign spokesman, Todd Harris, said Mr. Thompson’s performance showed that he was the only candidate that voters in the Jan. 19 primary here should trust “to be a strong, consistent conservative.”

Mr. Thompson has made all the same points during campaign events throughout the state, aides said. But many voters who flocked to his rallies on Friday had never heard him make them until they heard him in the latest debate on the Fox News Channel.

Jim Sickles, a retired corrections officer; Natalie Bankowski, an office manager; and Maryanne Gasper, who said she was “a waitress, with two other jobs,” were among a dozen people randomly interviewed who said they had been undecided or leaning toward other Republican candidates — mainly Mr. Huckabee — until Thursday night.

In person, Mr. Thompson, who is a television and movie actor in his life outside politics, conveys a message that perfectly matches the medium of his slow, well-paced, deep-baritone voice: He says the problems facing the next president “cannot be fixed overnight,” and admonishes voters not to believe candidates who say they can.

At some events, he prefers to talk sitting down rather than standing up, and has a habit of rocking on the back legs of his chair. In answer to questions, he tends to give long, discursive answers that start with “let’s go back to where this all started.”

In matters of foreign policy, economic policy and military affairs, he usually ends up with an endorsement of the way things have turned out. In answer to questions about Social Security, social programs and morality, he most often draws the conclusion that things need to change.

With a well-worn face atop an angular, 6-foot-4 frame, he looks like the smartest man in town holding forth at the county courthouse.

Chip Felkel, a longtime South Carolina political consultant who is not working for any of the candidates, said Mr. Thompson initially seemed to be a candidate who might appeal to all the major voting groups in the state. “Social conservatives from Huckabee, military votes from McCain, economic conservatives from Romney,” Mr. Felkel said, referring to former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

“But so far he hasn’t done that,” said Mr. Felkel, who added that he had watched Mr. Thompson’s debate performance on Thursday and was skeptical that it had helped him much.

Sirita Long, a construction forewoman from Moncks Corner, disagreed. “He’s a straight-up shoot-from-the-hip guy,” said Ms. Long, who said she had been leaning toward Mr. McCain until the debate. “I could see him staring down our enemies.”

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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