Fineman: How Fred Thompson Fared

Fred Thompson stood a head taller than his fellow Republicans, but he seemed in over his head as the CNBC debate began here. He wore the pained look of a man in need of a powerful digestive pill. But by the time the two-hour marathon ended, the new guy on the trail had gained just barely enough confidence, composure and credibility to make it to the next round of the GOP food fight. "Fred didn't die today," said Ron Kaufman, one of Mitt Romney's top spin doctors.

Rudy Giuliani, trained for combat by the toughest press corps in the world (in New York), won the debate here in a few ways: by mentioning Hillary Clinton's name every few seconds (a guaranteed applause line), by smacking down Ron Paul on the question of whether America had ever been attacked ("Where were you on 9/11?"), and by mixing it up with Romney on the question of who cut taxes and spending more (in fact, neither one of them is a real conservative on either matter).

Giuliani also won by not losing, as Romney did when he declared that he would consult his lawyers before deciding whether he had the power as president to take out an Iranian nuclear facility. Romney may have been right on the constitutional procedure, but wrong in a debate where the objective was to woo hardline GOP voters.

Romney was his usually well-, even overprepared self, remembering at the last minute to use his joke about Thompson—a lame construction about how the debate was like an episode of "Law and Order": a huge cast, a series that goes on forever and "Fred Thompson shows up at the end." That drew Thompson's best moment of the night. "And I thought that I was going to be the best actor on the stage," he deadpanned.

Deadpan is good in that situation. It wasn't so good early in the debate, when he was asked about the state of the economy. Thompson painted a picture of blue skies, describing a recession as an unlikely possibility. He made only the most passing reference to the place in which he was speaking. The morning headline in the Detroit Free Press screamed CHRYSLER TO CUT DEEPER. Even here, he said, people should realize how good America has it. "It is the greatest story never told," he said.

Especially on economic matters, Thompson seemed at times like the college kid at exam time facing the daunting task of filling up more than a page or two of his eight-page blue book. 

But he found his stride when the topic turned to foreign policy and the war on terrorism. On these topics he could be Arthur Branch again, the gravitas-filled DA who confronts chaos and tames it. He solemnly spoke of the dangers of the world and how to deal with them. At the same time, he gave a good answer on the need to go to Congress for authority to wage war. "In any conflict you need the strong support of the people," he said, sensibly.

The real news of the night—in terms of the general election campaign—was buried at the end. Representatives Ron Paul and Tom Tancredo both made it clear that they might not support the GOP presidential nominee. Get ready for a third, or fourth party candidacy: one against the war (perhaps teaming up with a Democrat), the other against illegal immigration. The former would hurt the Democrats, the latter the GOP.

And the debates they would produce would make this event look even tamer by comparison.