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 desparate 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.
Rudy wisely chose to stay away from Thompson. Romney pulled Rudy into a catfight, but neither man scored a knockout punch. Rudy's team sent out a flurry of e-mails showing that Romney didn't have his facts straight, but Rudy shrugged it off anyway. He showed poise, humor, energy, and personality. He continues to show his mastery of the format.
Romney and McCain did pretty well, although they had rough spots. When asked about war powers, Romney's insistence that he would have to check with his lawyers sounded like he didn't have a firm grasp on the mechanisms of war. Fred got it right first, and McCain answered well. McCain started off shaky, with the unusual "angry man" gambit in the opening minutes, but relaxed and was much more himself.
As for the rest, well, they occupied subplots most of the evening. Paul mostly continued his odd hand-flailing and high-pitched shouting. Tancredo couldn't seem to get words out of his mouth. Brownback faded into Tommy Thompson-like dullness. Duncan Hunter did well and his protectionism may have sounded good to the Michigan audience, but it won't sell to the GOP. Mike Huckabee again did well, but after Ames, he needed a breakout performance and didn't get it -- in part because he didn't get a lot of opportunities to respond. Matthews spent too much time hunting the Great Fred Whale, and coming up empty.
Fred's in now, and he will find new momentum after this performance. Matthews will become more of a joke, if such a thing is possible at a network that employs Keith Olbermann.
UPDATE: Earlier this morning, as Rick Moran reminded me during the Debate Central roundtable, I urged Republicans to engage against Chris Matthews:
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.
I guess I had that about right, didn't I? Also, I suggested that "the candidate who can push back best against Matthews' potential low blows should be strongly considered for the nomination." I think Fred qualifies as someone who can fight for himself.