In First G.O.P. Debate, Thompson Blows It

At the tail end of this afternoon’s Republican presidential debate, CNBC’s Maria “The Money Honey” Bartiromo asked Fred Thompson how his first appearance on-stage with the rest of the G.O.P. field had gone.

“I’ve enjoyed watching these fellas,” he finally managed, after stumbling for something sufficiently light-hearted to sat, “But I gotta admit: it was starting to get a little boring without me.”

Actually, Fred, it was much, much worse with you.

It almost feels like piling on, given the reams of negative reviews Mr. Thompson’s entry into the race has generated, but his performance in Dearborn was pretty close to a catastrophe for the low-key Tennesseean.

How bad? Put it this way: Even Duncan Hunter, who may not even win 100 votes in the New Hampshire primary, managed to stir more of a response from the audience than Mr. Thompson. And actually, Mr. Hunter did it by beating up on Mr. Thompson, who – rather amazingly – seemed rhetorically overmatched.

The subject was China and its trade policies and apparent currency manipulation, not exactly material that had the audience perched at the edge of its seats. But Mr. Hunter, rather shrewdly, tried some old-fashioned red-baiting, denouncing “Communist China” as a direct threat to the American working man – and then tying China to Mr. Thompson.

“Senator Thompson,” he said, “and some of the other senators here: You all voted for Most Favored Nation trading status for China. That set the groundwork for 1.8 million high-paying manufacturing jobs going off-shore, some of them never to return.”

Mr. Hunter continued in this vein, delivering his attack – on China and on Mr. Thompson – with genuine zest, his voice alive with outrage. When he finished, his remarks were greeted with applause.

When it was his turn to respond, Mr. Thompson showed no emotion whatsoever, in his facial expression or in his words.

“Free and fair trade has been good for America,” he blandly asserted, selling the statement with all the enthusiasm and confidence of a telemarketer reading from a script. And that was the highlight of his response. When he finally finished, the crowd was silent – as it was for every answer Mr. Thompson gave during the two-hour debate.

One of Mr. Thompson’s biggest obstacles is supposedly the high expectations that initially greeted his candidacy. That he failed to meet them in several appearances over the summer and in the month after he officially entered the race produced wide – and corrosive – skepticism among the opinion-shaping class. Still, there was some thought that this suddenly low bar would allow Mr. Thompson to “exceed” expectations in his first debate appearance, thus putting his once-promising campaign back on track.

And in fairness, he did show some improvement on the debate stage – but only in terms of his technical handling of policy-related questions. On the campaign trail, Mr. Thompson has generated poor reviews by seeming to be oblivious to the Jena-6 controversy and referring to Russia as “the Soviet Union,” a term that hasn’t been applicable in 15 years. In Dearborn, at least, he was able to answer immediately when co-moderator Chris Matthews – in an effort to mimic a gotcha question that embarrassed then-candidate George W. Bush back in 1999 – asked him to name the Prime Minister of Canada.

“Harper,” Mr. Thompson replied, and while Mr. Matthews didn’t ask him for the Prime Minister’s first name, the immediacy of his reply suggested that he knows it’s Stephen.

But not stumbling over the basics of policy hardly made this debate a success for Mr. Thompson, even if you take the recently lowered expectations into consideration.

The bigger problem is that the fervor that essentially drafted him into the G.O.P. race had to do with style, not substance. That Mr. Thompson seemed to hold positions in-line with the party base and its interest group establishment didn’t hurt, but it was the notion that he could communicate those positions in a powerful and compelling way that led Republicans to demand his candidacy. Like Ronald Reagan, another actor who didn’t always exhibit a command of policy details, Mr. Thompson would win over the masses with a public style that would warm up and win over any audience.

But faced with an auditorium full of Republican in Dearborn, he managed to put them to sleep. Amazingly – and despite Ms. Bartiromo’s admonition – each of the eight other Republicans on stage managed to provoke applause and laughter from the audience, multiple times in most cases, either with well-aimed humor or forceful statements of principle.

Ron Paul, for instance, won his share of applause for his customary assault on U.S. interventionism – and for heaping scorn on Mitt Romney’s suggestion that lawyers ought to decide whether a President needs to consult Congress before attacking Iran.

John McCain mixed his familiar borscht belt schtick – “We can’t hear you over hear in the cheap seats,” he chided Ms. Bartiromo at one point – with familiar pleas for fiscal restraint and an embrace of the “surge” in Iraq.

Sam Brownback invoked his mother to talk about unions and expressed his love for America by declaring, “This place rocks!” That won a loud ovation.

And the debate’s master rhetorician, Rudy Giuliani, time and again turned potentially uncomfortable situations into unifying applause lines by creating opportunities out of thin air to invoke the specter of the Clinton restoration.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have Republican presidential candidate who’s actually beaten Bill Clinton at something,” he said at one point, deftly turning Mitt Romney’s criticism of his opposition to presidential line item veto authority in the 1990s into an applause line. (Mr. Giuliani, as New York mayor, had appealed to the courts to take the power away from Mr. Clinton.)

And later, when Mr. Giuliani was asked about a possible third-party candidate next fall, he brought the discussion around to Mrs. Clinton and her support for Canadian-style “socialized medicine.” If the U.S. adopted such a system, he lamented, there’d be nowhere for Canadians to get their health care.

But there were no such moments for Mr. Thompson, even though he was given more than his share of opportunities, with the moderators giving the candidates uneven speaking time. He made no effort to tie his answers to some broad theme, to engage his opponents, to invoke the Clinton name, to fire off a humorous line or two.

Every time he was called on, Mr. Thompson looked and sounded like a backroom politician who had been forced to appear before the press to field a questions.

Actually, it’s rather ironic: The only professional actor in the race couldn’t even pretend he wanted to be there.