Fred Thompson remembered his lines in his first stage performance.
The newcomer to the Republican presidential field neither stood out nor bombed Tuesday in his inaugural debate of the 2008 White House race. He largely held his own but hardly came off as the Ronald Reagan-like savior of the GOP that backers have long built him up to be.
An intense squabbling between GOP rivals Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani over taxes and spending took some of the focus — and heat — off Thompson while overshadowing John McCain and the other five Republicans on stage. Thompson was literally stuck between Romney and Giuliani as they sparred.
“I’ve enjoyed watching these fellas. 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, once he got comfortable, it showed.
Overall, the sixth major debate of the GOP nomination fight didn’t change the wide-open nature of the race.
It’s still dominated by the four strongest contenders — Giuliani, Romney, Thompson and McCain — while a fifth, Mike Huckabee, again used his stellar communication skills to underscore the widely held notion that he is the underdog most likely to break out of the pack. Three months before voting begins, the front-runner mantel is up for grabs.
The debate, held in a manufacturing and automotive state suffering the highest unemployment rate in the country, was heavy on economic issues.
In the most heated exchange, Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Giuliani, the ex-mayor of New York, squared off over tax cuts and spending restraint. Each claimed greater commitment than the other in sparring that reflected a quickening pace as the 2008 caucuses and primaries draw close. Giuliani leads in national polls, but Romney has an edge in the leadoff caucus state of Iowa.
“I cut taxes 23 times. I believe in tax cuts,” Giuliani said.
Initially, Romney conceded that, but quickly criticized his rival for once filing a court challenge to a law that gave President Clinton the right to veto spending items line by line. “I’m in favor of the line-item veto,” he said, adding he exercised it 844 times while governor of Massachusetts.
Romney also said that while mayor, Giuliani “fought to keep the commuter tax, which is a very substantial tax … on consumers coming into New York.”
Responding, Giuliani said spending fell in New York while he was mayor, and rose in Massachusetts while Romney was governor. “The point is that you’ve got to control taxes. I did it, he didn’t. … I led, he lagged,” Giuliani said.
“It’s baloney,” retorted Romney. “I did not increase taxes in Massachusetts. I lowered taxes.”
That spat left Thompson and the other contenders as something of bystanders for several minutes.
The debate was an important test of Thompson’s maturity as a candidate and he was looking to counter the perception that he’s unprepared to be president.
“I don’t think his performance was especially bad but it wasn’t especially great either,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Fordham University. “He certainly didn’t make the kind of impression that set him apart from any of the other candidates. He did very little to change the dynamics of the race.”
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 Florida 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 low-balled the Democratic-controlled Congress’ job approval rating at 11 percent. A recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll showed it at 22 percent, and several other surveys put it in that range.
And while Thompson pointed out that he belonged to the Screen Actors Guild, he missed the opportunity to say that Reagan was in the same union. In fact, Reagan served as SAG president from 1947-1952 and 1959-1960.
A late entry to the race, Thompson good-naturedly handled the ribbing he took for waiting until now to participate in debates.
“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 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 in a groove. 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 lighthearted exchanges with his rivals.
“He handled himself very well,” said Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “He clearly got more comfortable as it went through.”
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.
Liz Sidoti covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.