Had Thompson been alone, he may have carried it off better. Giuliani, in particular, had a commanding grasp of details, facts and figures, even explaining the particulars of pending trade deals. The momentary bickering with Romney did little to hurt either candidate and both men managed to make the debate as much about the Democratic front-runner as their opponents on stage. It may have been the first debate that Giuliani has not had to deal with some uncomfortable questions about issues where he disagrees with many rank-and-file GOP voters.
John McCain continues to rebound from his politically perilous summer and isn't skimping on the straight talk. His oft-repeated line that he drinks a glass of ethanol every morning for breakfast but doesn't support subsidies for it won't help him mount a comeback in Iowa but he's sounding more and more like the candidate from 2000 than the front-runner of 2006. Mike Huckabee again turned in a strong performance and sprinkled GOP orthodoxy with some populism on economic issues. Ron Paul was once again the foil for the rest and was even joined by Tancredo in not pledging to support the eventual nominee (look out for that conservative third party candidacy).
Romney tried to sum it up best at the end, comparing these debates to Thompson's "Law and Order" show: "It has a huge cast. It seems to go on forever. And Fred Thompson shows up at the end." How many of them will be there at the end of this nominating process is not any clearer for this debate.
5:30pm: Back from another break and the topic switches to social security. Thompson says a strong economy is critical but also says future benefits should be indexed to inflation. Romney says current, employer-based health care should be improved not replaced (gratuitous Clinton mention here). Tancredo takes a question of trade and, for at least the third time today, turns it into an illegal immigration issue.
Are unions good for America? Paul says right to organize is a right. Huckabee says unions are a natural result of people frustrated with the income gap. McCain says unions have played a historic role but says people should not be forced to join one. Romney says good unions help their members improve their skills and bad unions don't. Thompson is a proud member of the screen actors guild (not exactly the UAW). Giuliani's grandmother was a union member.
5:15pm: Is there an "optimism" gulf among the candidates? Huckabee and McCain are talking about "straight talk" and tough choices, Fred Thompson says people don't trust anything coming out of Washington, Paul says the nation's fiscal house is in a mess and Romney and Giuliani say the best days are still to come. Interesting, both Giuliani and Romney mention bring Hillary Clinton into the discussion at this point. Sam Brownback on America: "This place rocks."
5:00pm: More Iraq. Brownback promotes his support for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's plan to partition Iraq into three regions. He will be appearing with Biden to discuss the plan later this week. Thompson clears up a much-muffed criticism that he had recently claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Thompson said he was referring to past uses of such weapons by Hussein.
Romney says the U.S. should not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Does the president need congressional approval for a strategic attack on Iraq? Duncan Hunter says it depends on whether the target is "fleeting." Paul says you're not allowed to go to war without such approval according to the Constitution. "This is just war propaganda." Paul gets applause for that.
Huckabee says it's always better to go to congress but that a president has a right to do what is necessary. McCain agrees about immediate threats but for a bigger operation, you want to go to congress. Thompson says, "I think John has it right" and that, in any close call, the president should go to congress because "you need the American people." Giuliani echoes most above sentiments and gets a jab in on Paul for saying the country had never been under attack. Paul responds that 9/11 had nothing to do with "another country," but was the work of "19 thugs."
4:42pm: Asked about the alternative minimum tax, Thompson answers in generalities: If they say they're after the rich guys, the middle class guys should run to the other side of the room. Thompson says the tax should probably be phased out but that the responsible thing to do is adjust and hold it over until that can happen.
4:40pm: Asked about foreign companies buying American properties, Giuliani says the country is on the verge of going one way or another when it comes to protectionism. "We cannot stop doing business with the rest of the world," he says. Giuliani had a firm grasp of current trade deals in front of Congress. Huckabee and Hunter don't sound so sure. McCain: "Free trade should be the continuing principle that guides this country's economy."
4:30pm: The tax-cutting battle between Giuliani and Romney is now on the table. Giuliani touts his record in New York City. "I cut, I think as many taxes as I could" at that time, he said. Romney agrees but uses Giuliani's suit on the line-item veto as evidence that Giuliani is not serious about cutting spending. Giuliani says he cut spending and taxes and Romney didn't and says line-item veto is unconstitutional. Romney: "Mayor, you've gotta check your facts" – I lowered taxes, etc. Giuliani: "You have to be honest with people." That exchange will be in some ads.
4:20pm: Thompson gets a second chance, this time on trade deals with China. This is right in the former senator's wheelhouse. Thompson has a background dealing with China and he says curtailing free trade is not the right way to deal with the problem. Thompson got his feet back a little on that one.
4:15pm: Ron Paul says America is in a recession for many people – but not the "military industrial complex." McCain is the first to take on Paul by name, recommending that the libertarian-minded Republican needs to read "Wealth of Nations." It seems to be beneficial for the rest of the field to get into a debate spat with Paul in these events. Mike Huckabee touts the fair tax and repeats Paul's insistence that for many, the economy is not good.
4:00pm: Thompson, the tallest of the nine GOP candidates, get the center podium. Four moderators – John Harwood and Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal, Maria Bartiromo of CNBC and Chris Mathews of MSNBC.
As expected, Thompson gets the first question and looked shaky in answering it but the upshot: Economy is the "greatest story never told." Romney gets an applause line and Giuliani manages to refer to last night's Yankee loss in his first answer.
3:45pm: Some questions as we await the start – will Fred Thompson get the first question from the moderators? (Probably) Will he get the most? (Maybe) Will other candidates keep him under the glare by engaging the first-time presidential debate participant or will they ignore him? (May depend on how well we keeps his feet in the early going).
Will Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani take their battle over taxes to the next level? They'll almost certainly try) Will this be the GOP debate where tax cuts are mentioned more often than 9/11 (Might be close since this debate is supposed to focus on economic issues) Will we hear more criticism of President Bush or the GOP Congress (The latter is a safe bet) Will anything happen to change the way the race is perceived (Don't bet on it).