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Barnes: Thompson Passed the Test

11:27 PM, Oct 9, 2007 • By FRED BARNES
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First impressions are supposed to be 90 percent of politics. If that's the case, Fred Thompson should have a decent shot at the Republican presidential nomination. The impression he created in Tuesday's Republican debate in Detroit wasn't that of a dominant figure or a replica of Ronald Reagan. But he came across as likable, knowledgeable on issues but not wonky, and unexcitable. So Thompson passed the test of whether he could run with the big boys - Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain - in the Republican race.

That was the only big thing that happened in the debate. But there were a few small things of note. Giuliani proved again that he knows how to force himself front and center in a televised debate. He does it by being aggressive and by leapfrogging the other candidates to take on the Democratic presidential favorite, Hillary Clinton.

Romney should have been a stronger presence, given the debate was focused on economic and financial matters, his issues. He talked about the value of having a president with experience in working in the real economy. That's a fair point, but Romney wasn't able to make much out of it.

I thought Romney made two mistakes. Asked if he'd seek congressional approval before attacking Iran, Romney said he'd have to check with his lawyers. Sorry, sir, but that's a decision for the president to make, not the White House counsel. Romney also insisted on zinging Giuliani for challenging the presidential line item veto in court. Giuliani said the veto was unconstitutional and the Supreme Court agreed with him, 6 to 3, with two conservatives - William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas - in the majority. This was the wrong issue to use against Giuliani.These were small mistakes, sure to be long forgotten by the time the Iowa caucuses roll around in early January. In fact, most things that happen in debates during the year before the primaries and caucuses have no impact on the outcome of the nomination struggle. If there's an exception to this rule, it's slipped my mind.

For the first time in a Republican debate, Mike Huckabee didn't add much. He didn't seem to have anything significant to say. You can't get by in debate after debate with a joke or two and a vague populist pitch about the hard times many Americans are experiencing. That shtick grows stale.

There's a saying in politics that you can't get in trouble for what you don't say. The result: Candidates shy from saying anything that might be controversial. Hillary Clinton is the best example of this phenomenon. Ron Paul is the Republican exception, Mike Gravel the Democratic one.

Back to Thompson. I thought his best moment came at the close of the debate after Romney told a joke about how the debate was like Law and Order, the TV show Thompson had appeared on. "It has a huge cast, the series seems to go on forever, and Fred Thompson shows up at the end," Romney said.

The joke was obviously scripted, and Thompson played on that in his response. "And to think, I thought I'd be the best actor on the stage," he said sarcastically. Not bad for a rookie in the big league of presidential debates.