Republicans debate; Fred announces

Eight Republicans argued over the Iraq war and immigration before a crowd of 3,600 New Hampshire voters. Missing in action: actor-politician Fred Thompson, who skipped the debate in favor of announcing his candidacy in the more comfortable setting of late-night TV.

With delight, they zinged him for ducking the debate, their fifth.

“Maybe Senator Thompson will be known as the no-show for the presidential debates,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said.

“Maybe we’re up past his bedtime,” joked Arizona Sen. John McCain. (At 65, Thompson is actually six years younger).

Thompson’s scripted announcement — an appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” a commercial and a Web video — allowed him to avoid the unscripted debate, which raised troublesome issues important to conservative primary voters.

How to handle illegal immigrants. Whether to pass a constitutional amendment saying life begins at conception. Whether to sign a no-new-taxes pledge.

These questions, addressed Wednesday by his rivals, await Thompson on the campaign trail.

He begins a tour of early primary states Thursday afternoon in Iowa.

In the Fox News Channel debate:

  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney thumped former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for the “sanctuary” policy that stopped New York City workers from reporting illegal immigrants. Giuliani accused Romney of tolerating the same policy in Massachusetts cities while he was governor.
  • Huckabee called for a “human life” amendment to outlaw abortion.
  • McCain and Giuliani refused to make a no-new-taxes pledge, instead citing their records of supporting tax cuts.

Thompson already has raised eyebrows on taxes; traveling last month in Iowa, he refused to rule out raising taxes.

“You can’t win a Republican primary for the presidency without clearly stating you’re not going to raise taxes,” said Pat Toomey, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who heads the anti-tax group Club for Growth. “He’s been able to avoid taking a lot of shots.”

Thompson’s campaign also has stumbled, raising less money than expected and weathering a stream of staff departures amid grumbling about the active role Thompson’s wife, Jeri, has played in the formerly unofficial campaign.

“Let’s say we chalk it up to working the kinks out,” GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said. “But they have to run a near-perfect campaign from here on out, because they’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

Now the bar is set high for Thompson, who will be judged on how much money he raises, how his announcement goes and the kind of campaign team he assembles, Fabrizio said.

Initially, Thompson’s entry may have the most impact on Romney and McCain, two leading candidates who have positioned themselves as conservatives seeking a more limited government.

Thompson also is promising to be the same kind of conservative: “A government that is big enough to do everything for us is powerful enough to do anything to us,” he said in his campaign announcement.

But there’s more to Thompson than his conservative voting record as a senator from Tennessee. As an actor — he plays gruff district attorney Arthur Branch on television’s “Law & Order” — Thompson has a certain magnetism.

Another magnetic personality, former President Clinton, acknowledged as much Wednesday on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

“Because of his movie roles and his television roles, he has got a certain swagger,” Clinton said. “He is smart. And he knows what to say, and how to say it, to appeal to a certain big swath of the American electorate.”

If his campaign gains traction, Thompson could challenge Giuliani’s lead in national polls.

His performance in future debates is equally important. The next opportunity is Sept. 27 in Baltimore, although not all Republicans have agreed to participate.

“First impressions for Thompson are going to be absolutely crucial,” conservative Republican consultant Greg Mueller said.

“How he does in debates, his first commercial, appearances on major talk shows, how he handles issue questions in the media,” Mueller said. “The first three weeks are going to make or break the Thompson campaign.”

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Libby Quaid covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.