Fred Thompson finally makes his bones today in the presidential race, participating in his first televised debate. Thompson meets the rest of the Republican candidates in Dearborn, Michigan for the second debate moderated by Chris Matthews, potentially unfriendly territory in both senses of the venue:
In an unusual political season that seems to offer up a presidential debate every week or so, the Republican debate tomorrow is expected to offer something new: Fred D. Thompson.
Untested in debate against his opponents until now, Mr. Thompson, a late entrant to the race, chose to skip the last contest in favor of announcing his candidacy on “The Tonight Show” early last month — a decision for which he was roundly criticized.
Many have been wondering how Mr. Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee, will do. By his own admission he is “a bit rusty” when it comes to debating, and he has said he hopes he will be able to “hang in there” with the other candidates, including Rudolph W. Giuliani, the sharp-tongued former New York mayor, and Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who is known for his polished delivery.
That's generally known as managing expectations, and Thompson probably feels the need to do so. He has spent a lot of time out of the race while his colleagues have honed these debates into the 90-minute snorefests that they generally become. Thompson provides debate-watchers with the first real news that these debates have generated in quite a while, and Thompson wants the analysts to be pleasantly surprised at his performance.
Mike Allen at The Politico believes that Chris Matthews will be lying in wait to find a "gotcha" moment for Thompson. Allen thinks it will come from an economics question, but it could just as well come from a foreign-policy query. Matthews has been accused of having a "man crush" on Thompson by some of his critics on the Left, and will no doubt want to establish some credibility with a tough attack on Thompson. Thompson will have an equal opportunity to pop Matthews' bubble by responding calmly and in the same 30-second generalities as everyone else on stage.
Thompson has to perform well in this debate, and not just to impress Chris Matthews and Michigan. He has to establish that he can campaign well in the field, and no one gets a second chance to make a first impression. Everyone else on stage has been seen too many times for one debate to affect them much, but Thompson will have everyone's attention. If he comes across poorly in this debate, the Thompson boomlet may end just as quickly as it began. If he holds his own or especially if he shines, it will effectively make him the candidate Rudy has to beat.
Some conservatives have demanded that the GOP withdraw from this debate because of Chris Matthews' comments about the "criminality" of the Bush administration. They claim that the comments reveals Matthews as too much of a partisan to fairly moderate a Republican debate. It seems late in the day, however, to claim potential bias from Chris Matthews as a reason for the withdrawal. It would mean arguing that no one knew Matthews was a partisan before those comments, which would be akin to admitting stupidity.
Besides, the Republicans have already had a Chris Matthews debate, and they handled him fine. The GOP does not need to take a page from the Democrats, who ran shrieking from Fox News when the Congressional Black Caucus had control of the entire event. If Republicans want to get votes from the center, they have to address the rantings of Matthews and his ilk at some point. Let's see who can do that most effectively this afternoon. We know that none of the Democrats feel they can do the same in reverse, so the candidate who can push back best against Matthews' potential low blows should be strongly considered for the nomination.
Want to bet Fred practiced at that this week?