Former Sen. Fred Thompson didn’t join the other eight Republican presidential contenders at a debate on Fox News this week.

But some people watched the commercials just as closely.

“Like the Super Bowl?” one campaign operative asked.

Not quite. But in the pre-game show, Thompson dropped his first, 30-second ad on the eve of his campaign kickoff.

The debate in Durham, N.H., began with a question about Thompson, the absent friend.

And, one-by-one, his rivals welcomed him into the contest — with backhanded compliments.

“I think he’s done a really good job of playing my part on ‘Law and Order,’ ” former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told the debate audience. “I personally prefer the real thing, but I think Fred will add something to the race.”

The rest of the debate hit the usual topics: terrorism, the Iraq war, immigration and more.

An all-star cast of analysts provided real-time commentary at the “Back Roads to the White House” blog.

Kavon W. Nikrad, founder and managing editor of, focused on one of the debate’s most prominent confrontations, when Rep. Ron Paul of Texas spoke about the need to bring troops home from Iraq and then was challenged by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

It’s must-see TV if you can find it on YouTube.

“That exchange with Paul has been the most interesting moment in this race in months, to be quite honest,” Nikrad said.

And by the next morning, Huckabee loyalists and Paul’s faithful online fans all were declaring victory.

But at the “Back Roads” blog, we declared a different winner during the night’s debate.

It was live-chat commentator Ted Sporer, an Iowa GOP official who runs “The Real Sporer” blog.

He scored a knockout blow — and the most politically incorrect quip of the night — after Paul spoke about how he believes private airline companies, not the federal government, should be responsible for airline security.

Wrote Sporer: “Right on, Ron Paul. There is just something irresistibly hot about a stewardess packing heat!”

In Iowa, Thompson stole most of the Republican spotlight this week with a debut campaign rally we called “more Hollywood than heartland.” (The swarm of paparazzi rivaled what you’d see on the red carpet outside the Oscars!)

But all six of the top Democratic contenders brought their own acts to the state on Monday and Tuesday.

On Labor Day — one of the high holy days on the party’s campaign calendar — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, her husband, what’s-his-name, and former Sen. John Edwards all appeared at the Iowa State Fairgrounds for a union rally.

“I’ll be the president who walks out on the White House lawn and says the word ‘union,’ ” Edwards declared.

Later, Clinton told the pro-union crowd: “Are you ready for a secretary of labor who actually believes in labor and the people who do the work?”

The holiday signaled the unofficial start of the sprint toward Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses — now scheduled for January 2008. So it’s no wonder that Sen. Barack Obama, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Chris Dodd and Sen. Joseph Biden all made Iowa appearances this week.

At one of Obama’s events, a speech inside a firehouse garage in Waukee, Iowa, a campaign worker was asked to explain why there appeared to be a sudden explosion in the number of out-of-town television crews and journalists chasing the candidates.

Along with the usual suspects from the Iowa press corps, every major television network was there, and The Wall Street Journal sent not one but two writers.

“Well,” he said, “it’s after Labor Day …”

(Reach M.E. Sprengelmeyer at SprengelmeyerM(at) Read daily dispatches from the “Back Roads to the White House” at: