Fred Beats Expectations, but Not Anyone Else



If told that the Republican presidential candidates were holding yet another debate this afternoon, most Americans would reply, "And...?" If then told that today's debate would focus like a laser on the economy, and feature Fred Thompson's big debut, most Americans would still reply, "And...?"

And... that's exactly how I felt after actually doing what almost no one else did - actually watching the entire, two-hour non-event.

Nine contenders, a bunch of moderators, and hot topic, all gathered together in hostile Blue State Michigan. But if you were expecting a firefight, or even many sparks to fly, then you were sorely disappointed.

The two most perplexing questions about this debate are:

1. What is Ron Paul still doing showing up for these things?

2. What is Fred Thompson thinking?

We'll cover Paul first.

When asked point-blank if he'd support the Republican nominee next fall, Paul answered just as Grosse Pointe-blankly: "No." Unless the party retreats from Iraq - and Germany and Korea and Japan, too - then Paul wants nothing to do with the Republicans. That said, Paul should stick to his principles and RSVP "thanks but no thanks" to the next debate, and the one after that, and so on. If he's not even going to pretend to be a Republican, he ought to go back to the Libertarian Party where he and his five million dollars would be more than welcome. In the meantime, he's just taking up space, time, and a whole lot of hot air.

Thompson's performance was much more low-key than Paul's, which is like saying that napping tree sloth is somewhat calmer than a spider monkey hopped up on Mountain Dew and herbal Viagra. Over the course of a two hour debate, I caught Thompson mentioning exactly one hard fact - Israel's air strike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear plant, way back in 1981. The rest of the time, Thompson spoke in platitudes, slowly, and yet still stumbled through some of his answers. The good news, if you can call it that, is the expectations game. After a month of dismal campaigning, Fred looked pretty good just showing up fully dressed and speaking in complete sentences.

But I expected more. When Thompson first stuck his toes in the water last spring, he came across as the Completely Modern Candidate. Maybe you remember the short video he released in response to "documentary" filmmaker Michael Moore. Thompson's video was a viral hit, released fast, expertly produced, and down-home funny. Since then, Thompson has coasted like an incumbent running unopposed for some state assembly seat. His performance tonight did nothing to dispel that impression. I'll give him a pass tonight, but he won't get a second one.

Much more so than Thompson, however, the real loser might have been Barack Obama, who failed to get even one mention by anyone. Any time anyone reached across the aisle, they aimed square at Hillary. Obama hasn't left any blood in the water for the sharks to sniff at, and it shows.

Even John McCain's biggest fans might admit that, after tonight, their man is deep in the Second Tier Candidate well. McCain scored no real zingers on the other candidates, or even much against any of the Democrats. Twice, he failed to hear questions directed to him, although it's not clear if that was due to a faulty sound system, or if McCain is just losing his hearing. Or if he simply wasn't paying close attention. No matter what the explanation, the impression was clear: McCain might be too old for the job.

The rest of the field was about what you'd expect, if you've watched even just one of these debates so far.

California's Hunter Duncan really played up to the Detroit crowd, denouncing free trade every chance he got. He more or less promised to renegotiate every free trade agreement we have. He wants more "fair" trade provisions, and he wants concessions from Beijing on floating the Yuan. Good luck with that last item, Congressman, and better luck getting new agreements through a Congress even less disposed towards free trade than you are.

Tom Tancredo, Congressman from Colorado, tilted at the same windmills as always: Immigrants, entitlements, immigrants, and immigrants with entitlements, and also immigrants. Although I don't always agree with him, he's an honest and principled candidate, which means he'll be forced out shortly before or after Super Duper Tuesday.

The same can be said of Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, except to add that both of them come across as much more likeable than Tancredo. Either one would make an excellent vice-presidential choice - except that neither one would add more to the Republican ticket than John Edwards added to the Democrats in 2004. They look and sound OK, but can't bring much with them that the Republican nominee won't already get.

Really, today's debate was the Mitt & Rudy Show. Romney and Giuliani were offered more questions than any other three or four candidates, and neither of them made any major flubs. There was one telling moment, however, just minutes before the end of the debate. CNBC's Maria Bartiromo asked Giuliani if London would ever replace New York "as the world's financial capital." As I wrote on my blog, live during the debate, "Rudy basically gave her the New Yorker Single Finger Salute." Ain't nobody bigger 'an New Yawk, lady. When asked the same question a moment later, Romney gave a canned answer, which included mention of some obscure provision of the impenetrable Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

You have to give this debate to Rudy on points and style, and hope that the real Fred Thompson shows up at the next one - if ever.