Starting Gate: Too Late For The Expectations Game?

(CBS)
The biggest story out of today's Wall Street Journal/CNBC/MSNBC sponsored Republican forum, which airs at 4 pm on CNBC and focuses primarily on economic issues, is the debate debut of former Sen. Fred Thompson. Thompson has been widely criticized for being unprepared to handle questions on the campaign trail – he appeared unaware there was oil drilling in the Florida Everglades and refused to share an opinion on the Terri Schiavo case, stating that he doesn't "remember the details of it." Saturday Night Live has even joined in on the Thompson's-heart-isn't-in-it narrative: On this weekend's edition, a Thompson impersonator said, "How bad do I want to be your president? On a scale of one to ten, I'm about a six."

So the debate is a crucial opportunity for Thompson to show that he is a ready-for-prime-time-player. Thompson's decision to announce his candidacy on "The Tonight Show" on a night that the Republican candidates were debating drew strong criticism from his rivals. He has acknowledged being "a bit rusty" as a debater and says he hopes to "hang in there" with his more-practiced opponents.

It appears to be a classic chance for beating low expectations. The bar for judging his performance is as low as he'll find from here on out. Even a marginally competent job in discussing the broad parameters of his economic policy this afternoon should result in some good pundit reviews for the newest candidate in the race.

But here's why many GOP voters and commentators tuning in may end up seeing things differently: It's getting late and the stakes are very high. Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mike Huckabee and the rest of the GOP field have had months to fine-tune their debate performances and, just as importantly, their political messages.

Republicans will want someone who they feel can compete with Hillary Clinton, who increasingly looks like the likely Democratic nominee. Clinton's campaign up to this point has moved forward like a well-oiled and mistake-free operation and nervous Republicans may well be looking for someone to match that intensity, not a candidate who can just clear a low-setting bar. With just under three months before the Iowa caucuses begin, Thompson may need to do more than just survive his first debate if he wants to start catching fire among early GOP voters.

The Undercard: All eyes may be on Thompson but the economic focus of today's debate has been previewed over the past week or so with the back-and-forth between Giuliani and Romney as they compete for the title of most fiscal conservative. Last week, the two took jabs at one another, with Giuliani claiming that Romney did little to cut taxes while governor of Massachusetts, while Romney said Giuliani led the fight against the line-item veto -- which would allow the president to remove spending on specific projects from appropriations bills -- when he was mayor of New York.

Unlike the financial sector, in this case past performance may really be an indicator of future results. In previous debates, Giuliani and Romney have been quick to trade words on other issues, particularly immigration, so a debate-within-a-debate between the two on fiscal policy appears likely, especially with polls in New Hampshire showing the gap between the two candidates shrinking rapidly. The only question may be who will strike first.

Major Union Won't Endorse: The Service Employees International Union, one of the most aggressive and active labor unions in Democratic politics, won't make an endorsement during the primary. Said Treasurer Anna Burger, "any one of these candidates would help create a new American dream for workers and their families." All three of the top Democratic candidates – Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards had courted the union for a national endorsement, but now the SEIU's local organizations will have to decided for themselves whether or not to endorse.

Around The Track

  • Clinton as Howard Dean of the 2008 primary season? Maybe not the exact sentiment John Edwards meant to convey but he says things will look much different come caucus day: "I lived through the inevitability of Howard Dean, and I don't think he won a single caucus or primary. … So what we know is, as we move closer to the caucuses and the primaries, there will be an intense focus on who has specific ideas, who's ready to be president and who's somebody who can win the general election."
  • Elizabeth Edwards wanted to talk about her husband's health care plan in Amherst, New Hampshire yesterday but the audience wanted to talk about impeaching President Bush. E. Edwards said that course was unlikely because it would not result in a president with differences in policy: "I know there's frustration. I can see it on your faces. But it's better to attack the problem after the fact."
  • Thompson is set to gain the endorsement of former senator and one-time conservative presidential darling George Allen, according to the Weekly Standard.
  • Having faced a somewhat tense appearance before the NRA last month, Rudy Giuliani has accepted an invitation to appear at a "values" conference being organized by the Family Research Council. Giuliani might gain some grudging respect from conservatives who otherwise have differences with him on issues like gun control and abortion rights just for showing up for such events but don't look for him taking any phone calls on stage at this one.
  • Barack Obama joined in the criticism of Clinton's vote to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. The issue appears to have legs with some Democratic activists who see it as part of an argument for military action against Iran. Obama told the AP: "There's nothing wrong with identifying the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, but it is a problem when you start using Iran as a justification for troop structures in Iraq and providing language that could potentially lead to military action in Iran."
  • Mike Huckabee's Iowa chairman says an e-mail making the rounds suggesting that he is preparing to endorse another candidate is a hoax. "I'm not leaving my guy any time," said Bob Vander Plaats.