Thompson's Slam Dunk

Fred Thompson knew he had to hit it out of the park last night — so he did. His campaign is struggling after a sixth place finish in New Hampshire but in pure Thompson style, he did what he had to in last night’s Fox News GOP debate in South Carolina. That included bringing assurance on immigration issues (“we need to be a nation of high fences and wide gates”) and slamming one of his most potent rivals, Mike Huckabee.

Thompson said Huckabee was a “Christian leader” with liberal economic and foreign policies that “model” the Democratic Party. Thompson lambasted Huckabee for receiving the endorsement of the National Education Association (NEA), past support for “taxpayer funded programs for illegals” and saying he would sign a bill to ban smoking nationwide wide. (“So much for federalism,” said Thompson.)

True to their reputation, the candidates battled it out to invoke the name of Ronald Reagan, a supreme advocate of less government and low taxes. Huckabee’s fiscal record hardly mirrors the Reagan model, though his background as a pastor and social conservative attracts Southern voters anyway.

“…We need to make sure that we communicate that our party is just as interested in helping the people who are single moms, who are working two jobs, and still just barely paying the rent as we are the people at the top of the economy,” he said.

Huckabee wasn’t the only one out of place last night. Ron Paul, who was invited to the debate only after receiving 8% of the New Hampshire vote, displayed his lack of understanding of the military by second-guessing on-scene commanders who didn’t fire on Iran speedboats in the incident last Sunday in the Strait of Hormuz. Worse still, Paul seemed to suggest that the American version of the incident — in which a radio transmission from the Iranian boats included a threat, “you will explode in two minutes” — was untrue.

Paul suggested that “voice may not even have come from those vessels” and argued that “there are people in this administration and in Washington DC that are looking for a chance” to go to war….an excuse to bomb Iran.”

Paul received a scattering of applause from the audience and chuckles of disbelief from his opponents — most notably, John McCain, with whom he sparred on national defense.

Mitt Romney suggested Paul “should not be reading as many of [Mahmoud] Achmadinejad’s press releases” and Thompson said if the Iranians had taken “one more step…they would have been introduced to those virgins that they’re looking forward to seeing.”

Much of the debate centered on a threatening Iran and an unstable Pakistan, among other foreign policy issues. McCain, who won New Hampshire and possesses that most experience personally and politically in this area, defended the surge and applauded Gen. David Petraeus (“should have been Time’s Man of the Year.”)

Candidates did not go after McCain hard, despite his revived campaign status. In fact a Fox News poll today shows McCain leading the pack with 25% over Huckabee’s 18% in South Carolina. South Carolina is a pivotal state because since 1980, no candidate has won the nomination without winning there first. McCain must stick to his A-game because he still rubs conservatives wrong on immigration issues. But as time dwindles, voters may choose experience over rhetoric. McCain’s entire campaign is based on his experience and judgment on the war front.

Rudy Giuliani, who placed low in both Iowa and New Hampshire, didn’t make much of a showing. He relied as usual on his more moderate appeal, due to his social liberalism, and advocated he could master a “broad inclusive outreach”, implying a victory over Democrats if he were the Republican nominee.

Questions on the economy, in light of Michigan’s constant issues in that area stumped the candidates. Romney claimed the country could be headed toward a recession while McCain disagreed. But all seemed hesitant to answer economic questions confidently — perhaps afraid to introduce any version of government intervention that might betray economic conservatism.

Thompson had it best with his immigration lines, hitting McCain, Huckabee and Giuliani in one punch when he said he disagreed with last year’s amnesty bill, tuition for illegal immgrants and sanctuary cities. Those three candidates supported each measure respectively.

A Fox News focus group after the debate found that Thompson won the debate overwhelmingly. If Thompson can do well in Michigan and South Carolina, he could become he new frontrunner.