Politics & Policy

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Thompson gains and loses by skipping an unmemorable debate.

Durham, N.H. — The girl in the yellow duck costume stood outside the debate hall, between supporters of Ron Paul and Mitt Romney, holding her sign high: “Fred, why are you ducking the debate?”

Did former Sen. Fred Thompson (R., Tenn.) make a mistake by skipping Wednesday night’s Republican debate at the University of New Hampshire? The case for a “yes” answer is robust. Before the Fox News moderators opened the debate by giving other candidates a free shot at the absent Thompson, New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullen delivered a subtle dig at the man who wasn’t there.

“Campaigns should be more than 30-second ads,” Cullen said in a taped message that preceded the debate on Fox News. “In New Hampshire, Republicans earn their votes by interacting with voters.” Thompson, just minutes earlier, had aired a 30-second ad directing viewers of The O’Reilly Factor to his campaign website.

I asked Cullen afterward whether he had intended his message for Thompson.

“I guess you could interpret it that way,” he said with a grin and a wink. Then he became serious: “Yes, I’m very disappointed that Fred Thompson deliberately scheduled his announcement in order to avoid this debate.”

I phoned Todd Harris, Thompson’s new spokesman, to ask why his boss wasn’t here. His immediate answer was that Thompson was appearing on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show and could not bi-locate. Yes, fine — but why did he opt to appear on a comedy show instead of coming to the presidential debate?

“There’s going to be ample opportunity over the next five months for Senator Thompson to participate in these debates,” he said. “All I can say for New Hampshire Republicans is that we intend to visit and court them and ask for their support.”

Better Never than Late?

It might seem arrogant of Thompson to avoid the debate, run an ad just before it began, and announce his candidacy on Leno just minutes afterward (the tape played at the stroke of midnight). Yet Thompson may have still done better than any of the other eight candidates — by attrition, anyway. None of the others really gained from participating in the fifth Republican debate. Had Thompson shown up, potentially ill-prepared and at the last minute, he could have done just as badly as they did — or worse, which would have killed his candidacy.

Consider the context: It’s still early in the campaign. Debate fatigue has already set in among Republicans. Before the event, a senior aide for another campaign uttered an expletive as he complained about the number of debates so far. “Why can’t we just have a ‘Best Of?” he asked. This debate, in particular, proved to be a net negative for most of the candidates who appeared.

The winner — again, by attrition — was Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), whom most everyone has written off as a viable candidate for the nomination. Despite a good performance in Durham, in which he stuck to his guns on Iraq, torture, and even immigration, McCain faces a difficult if not impossible task of regaining the lead. He has no money, and Republican primary voters already know who he is and why they aren’t supporting him.

Rudy Giuliani’s performance was probably his worst since the first debate. He not only urged voters to ignore his private life, but also said that his private life has not been “terribly different than at least some people in this country.” (“Whoever hasn’t called a press conference to dump his wife and introduce his mistress, let him cast the first stone…”)

Mitt Romney, confronted with the fact that he had raised fees in Massachusetts by $260 million as governor (earning him the nickname “fee-fee”), replied that hey, he hadn’t increased taxes, so that supposedly makes it okay. McCain upstaged Romney badly when the latter said that the Iraq surge was “apparently” succeeding. Romney was also confronted awkwardly by the father of a soldier serving in Iraq. He tried to contrast himself with Giuliani on the issue of “sanctuary cities,” but Giuliani pulled out his all-purpose defense: I had to do it, because otherwise New York would have been ungovernable. Even Romney’s normally perfect hair was a bit askew during this debate.

Mike Huckabee, after his opening dig at Thompson (“I was scheduled to be on Jay Leno tonight, but I gave up my slot for somebody else…”) made an unimpressive follow-up to his impressive second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll. Instead of going after the major candidates, from whom he needs to draw if he is to build up more support, Huckabee picked fights with Reps. Tom Tancredo (R., Colo.) and Ron Paul (R., Tex.), both of whom poll in the low single digits.

Duncan Hunter bored the crowd with all of the same jokes and lines he had used in previous debates, and Paul was — well, he was Ron Paul. Sen. Sam Brownback (R., Kan.), while reestablishing his credentials as a defender of the traditional family, said nothing that anyone will remember tomorrow.

Not only did the individual candidates do poorly, but the field performed badly as a whole. After the debate, not one of pollster Frank Luntz’s 29 focus-group members expressed satisfaction with the men on the stage.

At best, this debate was unmemorable. At worst, it provided a few embarrassing moments that could come back to haunt the eventual Republican nominee. So maybe Thompson is wise to suffer the criticism for not showing up as the lesser of two evils. It allows him to avoid the ignominy of participating.

Republican faith in Thompson has certainly waned since his name was first floated for the nomination this spring. But as Thompson pointed out on Leno early, no one but Beltway insiders and journalists will remember him for starting off a bit late. His campaign will either take off, or it won’t — either way it will not have anything to do with his no-show.

Still, did he have to flaunt it so much?

“For those who talk about that New Hampshire situation, I’m certainly not disrespecting them,” Thompson quipped to Leno. “But it is a lot more difficult to get on The Tonight Show than to appear in a presidential debate.” As he spoke, New Hampshire GOP chairman Cullen was standing next to the large flat-screen with a group of reporters. He said nothing, but grimaced and shook his head.

— David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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