Fred Doesn’t Fall

Thompson makes it through his first debate.

Fred Thompson. Click image to expand.
Fred Thompson in his first presidential debate

If Fred Thompson is lazy, he sure didn’t act it preparing for his first debate. Over two weeks, the former Tennessee senator and his aides held more than half a dozen question-and-answer sessions. Bush’s first economic adviser, Larry Lindsey, was involved, as were Vice President Cheney’s daughter Liz Cheney and GOP veteran Mary Matalin. There were also two full-blown rehearsals in which Liz Cheney’s husband played John McCain, Rep. Adam Putnam stood in for Mitt Romney, and former New York Sen. Al D’Amato played Rudy Giuliani. To add verisimilitude to his character, D’Amato pretended to take a phone call in the middle of one session.

The preparation paid off. Thompson didn’t win the night—Rudy Giuliani did—but he got through gaffe-free and at times seemed informed and in command. He came off as genuinely unaffected instead of irritatingly folksy. This may seem like a limited achievement, and it was, but Thompson has had such tough going recently that even a limited success is a win for him. Nervous staffers can now feel a little better about their boss, and disaffected GOP voters anxious to believe that Thompson is the candidate they’ve been looking for were given enough material to extend their dream.

The low expectations that Thompson cleared were a little phony. In retrospect, it shouldn’t surprise us that an actor trained in memorizing short snippets of dialogue was able to perform in a setting where candidates are cut off if they speak in anything but short snippets of dialogue. But for those who watch debates like car races—only for the crashes—Thompson’s first appearance had offered promise. He’d put together such a string of gaffes and lackluster performances on the campaign trail recently, it seemed possible he might slip and say something crazy like taxes should be raised or that the war in Iraq had been well managed.

During his first answer, Thompson ran into trouble when he paused to think, and it seemed like he might never return. The dead air was longer than some of his lines of movie dialogue. He got more comfortable over the two hours, though, and by the end of the debate, he was relaxed enough to answer the pop-quiz question about the prime minister of Canada, a piece of trivia that would have been devastating had he botched it.

Thompson offered plenty of the usual bromides, supporting free trade and tax cuts, but he showed that at least in some cases, he could think outside the party orthodoxy. As other Republican candidates strive to show how muscular they would be in office and continue Bush’s policy of treating Congress like a nuisance, Thompson was more measured. He argued that if any president were to go to war again, he should seek Congress’ permission to do so. He also offered specifics about how he’d solve the long-term solvency problems of Medicare and Social Security, which included hints of honesty about some of the choices that need to be made.

Just because Thompson did well for the evening doesn’t mean he’s cleared the hurdles that face his campaign. The recent gaffes weren’t just some clever strategy to lower expectations. He’s also created more work for himself by doing well. Romney and Giuliani had been carrying on a fight over the last few days over tax policy, largely ignoring Thompson—a spat they continued in a mildly heated exchange on stage. Though he’s second to Romney in Iowa polls and threatening Giuliani’s lead in South Carolina and Florida, both of Thompson’s rivals assumed he would fall from his own stumbles. After the first debate, they can’t do that any more.