The reviews are in, and the consensus is that Fred Thompson performed just well enough at Tuesday’s Republican debate in Dearborn, Mich., to keep his nascent presidential campaign alive and lurching forward.
Original DVD cover.
This, kids, is Chimpy’s true legacy! You now only have to be smarter than George W. Bush to run for the Rethuglican nomination. If you can manage to stay awake, keep your food down, and not drool, you can be preznit!! Countless doorknobs are expected to jump into the race at any moment.
“Considering it was his first debate, Fred did well,” says Scott Reed, a G.O.P. strategist who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign but is unaligned this cycle. “He did what he what he needed to do.”
By that, Reed means that Thompson’s performance, though unsteady at times, was competent enough to allay some of the fears that have been building among Republicans over the past several months — fears that Thompson is too lazy, unfocused and ambivalent to do what it takes to run a successful presidential campaign. A series of gaffes and uninspired public appearances during his first weeks on the campaign trail reinforced the notion that Thompson was ill-prepared for a competitive run and probably insufficiently ambitious to turn things around. With pundits and influential conservatives ranging from Bob Novak and George Will to James Dobson heaping criticism on Thompson from every angle, it appeared that his campaign might be stillborn. All the while, his poll numbers — both in national surveys and early state samples — showed surprising strength. Now, after raising more than $9 million in his first quarter as a candidate (not awe-inspiring, but not bad) and surviving his first debate with GOP rivals, Thompson has bought himself a little more time, and a second look.
By all rights, then, he should have been the center of attention. But he wasn’t. In fact, after he struggled to field his first question about the economy, nervously searching for a word to complete an unexceptional sentence, Thompson seemed to fade into the background of the debate as Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani traded playground level insults over which one of them is the real tax-cutting deficit hawk. Thompson was well-tanned, but still looked older and less virile than he did as Arthur Branch on the Law & Order soundstage. His suit jacket was too large, leaving a gap between his neck and collar that conveyed an image of incipient frailty. His campaign is hoping he comes across as Reaganesque, but not in this way. Last night, at times, he did look a bit like Reagan did — in his first debate against Walter Mondale in 1984, when Reagan seemed out of touch and overmatched.
But Thompson got better as the debate wore on
Later, Thompson displayed some unexpected verbal agility when he countered Romney’s obviously rehearsed, but nevertheless clever, line about the debates resembling an episode of Law & Order, where, as Romney put it, “Fred Thompson shows up at the end.” “And to think,” Thompson replied, “I thought I’d be the best actor on the stage.”
So where does Thompson go from here? After a summer of tumult, his campaign seems to have a newly acquired sense of order and professionalism that it previously lacked.
“One of his challenges now will be to flesh out a couple of issues,” says Reed. “He needs a message for why he’s running. The aw-shucks thing has been great. His poll numbers are phenomenal. But people are shopping around. People moved to him quickly, but they didn’t know what they were buying. Now they want to know. They could move away just as quickly.”