Did Fred Thompson Prove Himself?

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Brendan Smialowski / Getty

Republican presidential candidate and former Senator Fred Thompson

The reviews are in, and the consensus is that Fred Thompson performed just well enough at Tuesday's Republican debate in Dearborn, Mich., to keep his nascent presidential campaign alive and lurching forward. It was the sixth GOP debate of the 2008 election cycle but the first to include the actor and former Senator from Tennessee, who didn't formally announce his candidacy until after Labor Day. "Considering it was his first debate, Fred did well," says Scott Reed, a G.O.P. strategist who managed Bob Dole's 1996 campaign but is unaligned this cycle. "He did what he needed to do."

By that, Reed means that Thompson's performance, though unsteady at times, was competent enough to allay some of the fears that have been building among Republicans over the past several months — fears that Thompson is too lazy, unfocused and ambivalent to do what it takes to run a successful presidential campaign. A series of gaffes and uninspired public appearances during his first weeks on the campaign trail reinforced the notion that Thompson was ill-prepared for a competitive run and probably insufficiently ambitious to turn things around. With pundits and influential conservatives ranging from Bob Novak and George Will to James Dobson heaping criticism on Thompson from every angle, it appeared that his campaign might be stillborn. All the while, his poll numbers — both in national surveys and early state samples — showed surprising strength. Now, after raising more than $9 million in his first quarter as a candidate (not awe-inspiring, but not bad) and surviving his first debate with GOP rivals, Thompson has bought himself a little more time, and a second look.

Either by fate or the sponsors' design, Thompson was assigned to the podium at the exact middle of the stage, a position that accentuated both his stature — at 6'6", he looms over all his competitors save Romney, who's just a few inches shorter — and the novelty of his appearance. By all rights, then, he should have been the center of attention. But he wasn't. In fact, after he struggled to field his first question about the economy, nervously searching for a word to complete an unexceptional sentence, Thompson seemed to fade into the background of the debate as Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani traded playground level insults over which one of them is the real tax-cutting deficit hawk. Thompson was well-tanned, but still looked older and less virile than he did as Arthur Branch on the Law & Order soundstage. His suit jacket was too large, leaving a gap between his neck and collar that conveyed an image of incipient frailty. His campaign is hoping he comes across as Reaganesque, but not in this way. Last night, at times, he did look a bit like Reagan did — in his first debate against Walter Mondale in 1984, when Reagan seemed out of touch and overmatched.

But Thompson got better as the debate wore on. He handled questions on trade and Iraq crisply and plausibly, although without distinguishing himself from his top-tier competitors in either case. He first broke through answering a question about the Alternative Minimum Tax and how to make up for revenue that would be "lost" if the AMT were phased out. "I don't buy the concept that any reduction in taxes is lost revenue to the government," he said. "The taxpayers haven't lost it, it's in their pocket — they know exactly where to find it. We shouldn't confuse the wealth of government with the wealth of nations. Just because the money is sent to Washington doesn't mean the people are any richer — in fact, just the opposite is the case." Sure, all Thompson did was deliver a folksy platitude aimed at a slow-moving target — the anti-tax heart and soul of the GOP. But he did it convincingly, and by doing so delivered the first bit of cheer to his supporters.

Later, Thompson displayed some unexpected verbal agility when he countered Romney's obviously rehearsed, but nevertheless clever, line about the debates resembling an episode of Law & Order, where, as Romney put it, "Fred Thompson shows up at the end." "And to think," Thompson replied, "I thought I'd be the best actor on the stage." Not insignificantly, Thompson dodged what could have been a lethal gotcha question from Chris Matthews, who asked the former senator, "Who is the leader of Canada?" "Harper," said Thompson, "Prime Minister Harper." And Thompson also got to deliver the last answer, and the last laugh, of the debate. Asked whether it was wise to wait as long as he did to enter the race, Thompson said he'd been enjoying the previous debate. "I got to admit, it was getting a little boring without me," he said. "I'm glad to be here now."

So where does Thompson go from here? After a summer of tumult, his campaign seems to have a newly acquired sense of order and professionalism that it previously lacked. With less than three months before the first ballots are cast, Thompson's campaign manager, Bill Lacy, will have to make some big decisions soon about where to target the candidate's time and money to maximize his chances of winning. More importantly, says GOP strategist Reed, Thompson needs to develop a message that's specific and compelling enough to convince primary voters he's their man. "One of his challenges now will be to flesh out a couple of issues," says Reed. "He needs a message for why he's running. The aw-shucks thing has been great. His poll numbers are phenomenal. But people are shopping around. People moved to him quickly, but they didn't know what they were buying. Now they want to know. They could move away just as quickly."