DEARBORN, Mich. – Fred Thompson did not drool on stage last Tuesday, and for that reason, among others, he is said to have survived his first Republican presidential debate. These are the blessings of low expectations.
But if Thompson did nothing to hurt his chances, he did little that would make an undecided voter decide. Some of his answers were jumbled and others filled with platitudes. A would-be voter who caught only the first hour of the two-hour affair might have wondered why there had been so much hype surrounding Thompson's long-awaited candidacy.
On the other hand, a viewer who caught only the second hour might have concluded that Thompson won the debate. His best moment--the kind of moment that will endear him to Republican primary voters--has been largely overlooked in the flood of post-debate analysis.
After a long back-and-forth about the value of unions, one of the debate's cohosts, CNBC's Maria Bartiromo, asked Thompson about an issue of particular importance to those in the audience.
"Senator Thompson," she said over some crowd noise. "Chrysler is facing a possible walk-out on Wednesday. Should the government step in and help Chrysler and the other automakers?"
The contentious dispute between Chrysler and the United Auto Workers had dominated the news in Michigan for weeks. Workers had threatened to walk off the job if there were no new deal, and their deadline was Wednesday, the day after the debate. Chrysler's problems, and those of the auto industry in general, have contributed mightily to Michigan's economic struggles. It's safe to assume that for many Michiganders, the right answer to the question was yes.
"No," said Thompson.
"Why?" Bartiromo pressed.
"Well, I think the government has to have a good reason to step in. I think it has to be something that drastically affects our economy. . . . I don't think the government ought to step in and have people know that the government will step in if they walk out and create that kind of situation."
Later in the debate, Thompson fielded a "gotcha" question designed to test his knowledge of world affairs. Back in the fall of 1999, George W. Bush famously failed an impromptu pop-quiz on world leaders administered by a local Boston reporter.
MSNBC's Chris Matthews set up his question by emphasizing the relationship between the United States and Canada. Our northern neighbor is "our strongest trading partner," he said, before offering statistical support for his claim.
"Tell me about the prime minister of Canada," he continued. "How would you get along with--who is the prime minister of Canada?"
Thompson paused for a moment. "Harper," he said, adding: "We get along fine--we've never met."
There was laughter, and Thompson seemed to relax. When Mitt Romney fought with Matthews to get out a canned joke about Law and Order,"It has a huge cast, the series seems to go on forever, and Fred Thompson shows up at the end," Thompson joked back. "And to think I thought I was going to be the best actor on the stage."
(Asked whether he had waited too long to join the others in the debates, Thompson said he had not, adding: "I've enjoyed watching these fellas. I've got to admit it was getting a little boring without me.")