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Posted by on Oct 9, 2007 in Politics | 6 comments

Fred Thompson’s Debate Reviews: Not A Flop Not A Smash

Former actor and aspiring 2008 Republican Presidential nominee Fred Thompson debuted in his first debate today – -and he was big b.o. (that’s Variety parlance for box office, by the way.).

But did he live up to the advance billing? Was he another Ronald Reagan? Or did he flop? Fizzle? Help himself? Shoot himself in the foot or where the sun don’t shine? Was his performance the other kind of b.o.?

The reviews are trickling in and they’re mixed — but they’re likely to keep him in play as a viable alternative to Republicans who cannot stomach the idea of a Rudy Giuliani or a Mitt Romney or (far less likely) a Ron Paul at the head of the elephant ticket.

The AP’s reaction is significant:

Fred Thompson stayed on script.

The newcomer to the Republican presidential field didn’t stand out in his first debate of the 2008 race, but he didn’t blow it either.

An intense spat between GOP rivals Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani over taxes and spending took some of the focus — and the heat — off Thompson and overshadowed the other six Republicans on stage; Thompson was literally stuck between the two as they sparred.

So, if this is correct, he is very much in the running, particularly if Giuliani and Romney knock each other out.

But Bruce Bartlett, formerly one of President George Bush’s closest advisers, knew Ronald Reagan, spent time with Ronald Reagan and Ronald Reagan was a friend of his — and he has concluded Thompson is no Ronald Reagan. The Washington Post:

One of President Bush’s closest advisers has a brutally candid analysis of the Republican nomination battle: Fred Thompson is the campaign’s “biggest dud,” Mitt Romney has “a real problem in the South” because people will not vote for a Mormon, Mike Huckabee’s last name is too hick and John McCain could end up repeating 2000 by winning New Hampshire but losing the nomination.

….Bartlett was harshest in his judgment of Thompson, the former Tennessee senator who jumped into the contest a month ago and faces his first televised debate today. Thompson, Bartlett said, was the “biggest dud” because he peaked last spring when he first started talking about running and since then has yet to articulate a compelling vision for why he is running. “The biggest liability was whether he had the fire in the belly to run for office in the first place and be president,” Bartlett said. “So what does he do? He waits four months, fires a bunch of staff, has a big staff turnover, has a lot of backbiting, comes out with his big campaign launch and gives a very incoherent and not very concise stump speech for why he’s running for president.”

Bartlett held out little hope that Thompson could win the nomination. “Unless they really find a way to crystallize his message for why he’s different than the other candidates, why people should take a second look now, I don’t feel very good that Fred Thompson’s going to be the candidate for my party,” he said.

Conservative blogger Ed Morrissey (who interviewed Thompson on Morrissey’s popular weblog) had a different view: he thought Thompson won and moderator Chris Matthews lost:

The first debate with Fred Thompson was expected to reveal whether the lanky actor had what it takes to make a national run for the office. Instead, it revealed Chris Matthews as a hack of the first order, one who tried his best to torpedo Thompson — and failed utterly. He got so desperate that he demanded to know whether Thompson knew who the Canadian Prime Minister was — and he did. Matthews grew so frustrated that he openly critiqued one of Thompson’s answer for being too detailed, which prompted a scolding from Thompson.

That was the game behind the debate, and Thompson stomped Matthews into a laughingstock. In the rest of the debate, Thompson showed that he was comfortable and prepared, even for the silly attacks from other candidates. Mitt Romney went into a long, telegraphed, and obviously gag-written punch about how the debates resemble “Law and Order” and how Fred shows up last, which Fred neatly returned by feigning surprise that he wasn’t the best actor on the stage — jabbing at Romney’s perceived plasticness.

But Steven Green, aka Vodkapundit, a highly independent libertarian, in his libation-enhanced live blogging suggested Fred was a zzzzzzzzzz:

2:36pm We’re more than a quarter the way through Fred Thompson’s debutante debate, and he’s been a wallflower all night long. His dance card has hardly any names on it. What we’re really seeing today is the Mitt & Rudy Show. Maybe things will change after the first commercial break, when — if I may switch metaphors — Fred’s corner man has to slap him awake.

….3:24pm To Fred: “Give specific steps” to fixing Social Security. “We’re eating our seed corn, we’re spending their money, we’re giving 110%, we’ll take one for the team, and also Mom, Uncle Pie, and Sam apples.” Also, maybe we’ll index for inflation. When asked for specifics, Thompson reached, once more, into his grab bag of homespun generalities. [“grab bag of homespun generalities?” -Ed. I’m drunk, OK?]

…4:00pm Thompson jokes, “I think these debates were getting a little boring without me.”

If only that were true, Senator. If only that were true.

The Boston Globe was unimpressed, too:

Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson set low expectations for his first debate as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. And, in the first minutes of today’s Michigan debate, he failed to reach them.

Asked why two-thirds of Americans express pessimism about the economy, Thompson said, in his slow folksy drawl, “Well, I think there are pockets in this economy that, certainly, they’re having difficulty. I think they’re certainly those in Michigan that are having difficulty. I think you always find that in a vibrant, dynamic economy. . .”

Thompson’s dismissal of Michigan’s pain didn’t pass unnoticed. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney quickly jumped in to say, “It’s inexcusable that Michigan is undergoing a one-state recession.”

Thompson’s performance slowly ticked upwards from its low start, but his answers, while often soothing, rarely moved beyond agreeing with other candidates and endorsing broad principles like free trade. He sprinkled in a few specifics about the alternative-minimum tax and the War Powers Resolution, but otherwise concentrated on conveying an impression of grandfatherly ease and geniality.

And the Globe notes what is apparently a bit of delicious spin from Thompson supporters:

Supporters consider the former senator’s slow metabolism to be part of his appeal — he comes off as friendlier than most of his Republican rivals.

So what can you conclude (besides the fact that Thompson’s metabolism is slow)?

1. Thompson didn’t impress people as another Ronald Reagan but that’s not a surprise: there never will be another Ronald Reagan, a man shaped by his times and his personal experiences. (That should be a statement Reagan’s fans and critics both accept…)

2. The danger for Thompson was that he has not been in a real debate for a while. Being on YouTube smoking a cigar and answering Michael Moore is not a debate. He could have bombed, big-time. He did not.

3. Being the alternative to Giuliani and Romney is not a bad place to be. Political history is filled with examples of nominees who were not the original, early front-runners but seemed to pick up steam and support as the primary season unfolded.

4. So far, at least, Thompson seems to have SURVIVED the debate as a remaining option for Republicans. His campaign has not realized it’s early potential; but it’s not a sinking enterprise as is Senator John McCain’s. As Bartlett notes, McCain could win some primaries but it’s unlikely he’ll emerge the nominee.

5. Bartlett’s reaction doesn’t portend well for Thompson. If this is the perception of other GOPers identified with the political elite that now runs the Republican Party — the Bush faction — then the hunt may be on in coming weeks for alternatives to Giuliani and Romney if the Thompson option looks unrealistic.

See our earlier post with lots of links to live blogging HERE.

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