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.
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