Dearborn, Michigan–Team Thompson was very, very happy here at the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center Tuesday night. Sure, the first Republican debate to include Fred Thompson, a debate which focused mostly on economic issues, was a little dull. And sure, it went on for too long. And sure, moderator Chris Matthews – well, don’t get them started on him. But the bottom line was, Fred Thompson did just fine.
”If we had done badly, I would have said these things don’t mean a thing,” one top Thompson adviser told me in the converted gymnasium that served as the Spin Room after the debate. “But we did very well, so these things are very important.”
“It was clear that our opponents had a strategy to stay away from Fred,” another Thompson team member said. “They were giving him a chance to see if he would make a mistake on his own. He didn’t.”
Even some of Thompson’s adversaries had to admit he did well. “I thought he passed the test,” one Romney adviser told me. “I thought he proved he was a first-tier candidate.”
There was more than a little relief in the Thompson aides’ voices, because their man had been a bit wobbly in the beginning. Asked whether the country is headed for recession, he confidently said no. “We’re enjoying low inflation,” Thompson explained. “We’re enjoying low unemployment. The stock market seems to be doing pretty well. I see no reason to believe we’re headed for – “ And then, Thompson paused for a moment. And then another moment. He seemed to be spinning his hard disk, searching for the word “recession.” And then he found his voice and said, “an economic downturn.”
The moment made some viewers cringe, and it might have been a sign of a bad night. But it wasn’t. “He was obviously nervous on the first question,” the first Thompson adviser told me. “He got the first one out of the box. Part of the test that he had to pass was, did he know enough of the details, and he clearly did.”
For the advisers, the substance of Thompson’s answers was important, and he spoke with the requisite seriousness about Social Security, trade, and taxes. But the team was particularly happy with the little touches Thompson threw in. They swore that Thompson’s jokes were his own, ad-libbed, spur of the moment, and not the sort of canned stuff that Romney served up. When Romney said that the debates were “a lot like Law & Order – it has a huge cast, the series seems to go on forever, and Fred Thompson shows up at the end,” Thompson looked over and said, “And to think, I thought I was going to be the best actor on the stage.” Later, when asked his impressions of his first debate, Thompson said it was “just like home,” drawing laughs for its patent insincerity, and then added, “I’ve enjoyed watching these fellas. I’ve got to admit, it was getting a little boring without me.”
Everybody laughed, and Thompson’s people swore it was all his doing. Before the debate, they had come up with a few jokes for him to practice, but thought better of it. “We actually took turns writing some stuff, none of which got to him,” one aide told me. “We actually talked about it and then decided against being artificially cute, because he’s got a good sense of humor and we knew he would come up with something.”
Amidst all the happiness, there was one thing the Thompson camp was not pleased about, and that was the moderator. After Thompson finished answering a question about possible government aid to Chrysler, Matthews said, “Took a long time. He said no; he should have stopped there.” The remark seemed to cross a line; at the very least, it was not the sort of thing one normally hears from the moderator in these debates. Thompson responded, “In your opinion, Christopher,” and after it was all over, Thompson’s people unloaded on Matthews.
“Chris kept himself in check for as long as he humanly could, and then he just reverted to type,” the first Thompson aide told me. “He can’t help himself. He said this isn’t going to be about me, and of course it was about him.”
“The Democratic debate had Tim Russert. We had Chris Matthews. That’s like you having Roger Clemens and my team having…me. It’s just amateur hour with him. He can’t help himself.”
Besides Thompson’s debut, and the shots at Matthews, the only other news in the Dearborn debate was the continuation of the Romney-Giuliani feud. The former Massachusetts governor has been going after the former New York mayor for days now, accusing him of raising taxes and being fiscally immoderate. On Tuesday night, the charges flew fast and furious and without substantiation.
There were lots of numbers. Romney said Giuliani fought for a $400 million commuter tax and kept New York state and city taxes at 10 percent, while they were 5.3 percent for Bostonians, in part because Romney exercised the line-item veto 844 times. Giuliani said spending went up in Massachusetts under Romney by eight percent per capita, while it went down in New York by seven percent, while taxes went up under Romney 11 percent per capita and went down under Giuliani by 17 percent per capita. “I led,” Giuliani said. “He lagged.”
Romney has clearly made a decision to attack the national frontrunner. But Giuliani just as clearly prefers going after Hillary Rodham Clinton. He brought up Clinton’s name several times on Tuesday, but often found himself having to deal instead with Romney’s charges. “It’s just setting the record straight,” one Giuliani aide told me. “It’s one of those things where you can’t have someone continue to malign your record and let it just hand out there. You have to say what really happened. You can’t just leave it out there.”
All in all, it wasn’t a good night for Romney. Beyond his canned line about Thompson, and his forced feud with Giuliani, there was this answer, given when Matthews asked whether the president should ask Congress to authorize American military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities: “You sit down with your attorneys and tell you what you have to do, but obviously the president of the United States has to do what’s in the best interest of the United States to protect us against a potential threat,” Romney said.
Matthews asked whether the president needed such authorization before the invasion of Iraq. “You know, we’re going to let the lawyers sort out what he needed to do and what he didn’t need to do,” Romney said.
After the debate, Thompson aides pounced, saying, “When it comes to our nation’s security, it will be our generals that Fred Thompson sits down with first, not our attorneys.” Team Romney tried to brush it off, answering, “He was asked a constitutional question, and that’s why the president has the counsel that he does. Every candidate gave basically a very similar answer on that, which was, it depends on the situation.”
Maybe, but in the end, it was Thompson who came up with the best answer. “In any close call, you should go to Congress, whether it’s legally required or not,” he said. “Because you’re going to need the American people and Congress will help you if they’re voting for it or if they support it, or leaders, especially in the opposite party, are convinced and looking at the evidence that this is the right thing to do, that will help you with the American people. And we’ve learned that, over the long term in any conflict, we’ve got to have the strong support of the American people.”
It was not perfectly concise, but it was sober and sure-footed. And by the time the night was over, there was no doubt that Thompson was, in fact, in the first tier of the GOP race.