Fred's Debut

The GOP contenders lined up in Michigan, home of the beleaguered auto industry, for a debate primarily centering on the economy. The newest entrant, Fred Thompson, joined the latest contenders in the political showroom. Some anticipated a full blown disaster worthy of a NASCAR crash while others predicted he would lap the field. Neither occurred and there were a few surprises — and one smash up — along the way.

Thompson was neither an Edsel nor a Corvette, but closer to your grandmother’s Buick, the one needing new seat covers. Remarkably for an actor, his voice quality was poor, his enthusiasm was muted and at times he seemed to search for words. He did have his moments in calling for presidents to go to Congress when possible in a future conflict with Iran because we “are going to need the American people.” His answer on the alternative minimum tax showed some preparation. However, his performance was mixed at best. His quip about “Gomer and Goober” did nothing to further the view that he is more than a regional candidate. By plugging ethanol he seemed to have lost the monopoly on fiscal prudence and by meandering on his social security response he did little to improve his image as the “serious” candidate. To his credit he did throw out the notion of indexing benefits to inflation.

The crash up did occur but with another driver — Mitt Romney. He seemed to be driving a pale blue Lexus Sedan — too many gadgets and utterly unsuited for driving in an off the road world. His major error which may send him back to the assembly line was in lamely offering that he would talk “to the lawyers” about the president’s authority to attack Iran. Even Mike Huckabee knew enough to chime in with a strong statement about the president’s responsibility to protect Americans. As if that were not enough he chose to pick a fight with Rudy Giuliani on the line item veto — setting up an “I beat Bill” line and a defense of Rudy’s strict constructionist credentials for his opponent. He did come alive on his defense of his newest market based healthcare plan. Perhaps he would be a solid choice for HHS Secretary in the administration of one of his rivals.

As for John McCain, he rolled through the debate like a gray pick up truck, hard to distinguish and offering little enthusiasm. His was filled with grim and sober advice on the bleak state of our government, the need to sacrifice and the dangers to our environment. He does serve as a reminder that he alone voiced doubts about the failing Iraq policy and to his credit (or perhaps because he stands little chance to win the primary) spoke out against ethanol subsidies.

And Rudy? If ever there were a ’68 Mustang — plenty under the hood and best in a road race — he is it. He stared down Romney, reminding the crowd of the facts — always helpful things in a debate — including his 23 tax cuts as well as his self-proclaimed status as a “supply sider.” Once again he used Hillary Clinton to his advantage — reminding viewers that she would not answer the query posed to her last week as to whether she would accept the “Giuliani Iran policy” and use force if needed to prevent a nuclear armed Iran. On energy independence he sounded like he cared about the topic and his vibrant defense of nuclear power (“ why the heck haven’t we license a nuclear power plant in 30 years?”) was again a shot aimed at the opposing party which seems unwilling to embrace an energy source their French friends have utilized to great success. And of course there were parting shots at the new Hillary 401K plan (which he claimed cost $5B more than the Hillary bonds) and his admonition that HillaryCare would mean the Canadians would have nowhere to get their healthcare. His best moment: chiding the moderator to “get your head up” and forget the notion that London would surpass New York as the world’s financial center. Now that was a Reagan moment.

As for the rest,  Huckabee was blocked by the pack of cars and could not find daylight and Ron Paul — ever the straight man for Giuliani — by suggesting we had not been attacked by a foreign power grabbed the mantle for the worst case of a blown gasket.

But debates are not the sum total of campaigns and the cars have just gotten on the track. Ahead will be some spin outs, some stalls and some cars that simply run out of gas. For now, the leader cruises on.