Considering the astonishingly high rate of misstatements and factual errors tumbling from Fred Thompson’s lips since he declared his candidacy a scant month ago, all eyes were on him during yesterday’s Republican debate sponsored by CNBC, MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal and the Michigan Republican Party, held at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Voters and pundits alike wondered whether Thompson could hold his own in a debate, when he has repeatedly stumbled in less pressurized situations. His eight opponents have the advantage of several head-to-head debates and know each others riffs and rhythms pretty well by now. In previous match-ups, Rudy and Mike Huckabee have proven very quick and nimble in seizing any and every opening.

So how did the slow moving, slow talking Thompson do? He started off inauspiciously, losing his place and freezing up on the very first question. In contrast to Mitt Romney and Rudy – in particular – who peppered their answers with facts, figures and statistics, Thompson did not came off as being as sharp and well prepared as he should have been.

On the other hand, perhaps because his head wasn’t crammed with too many stats Thompson did not make any disturbing gaffes – unlike Romney and Paul.

Chris Matthews asked Romney, “if you were president of the United States, would you need to go to Congress to get authorization to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities?” The buck wouldn’t stop at Romney’s desk, because he thinks a president in such circumstances needs to “sit down with your attorneys and tell you what you have to do.”

For his part, Paul responded to Duncan Hunter’s answer about not needing Congressional authority to wage war when the target is fleeting by making the preposterous claim that “we’d never had [an imminent attack on us] happen in 220 years,” which naturally prompted Rudy to retort, “we’ve never had an imminent attack – I don’t know where he was on September 11th.” It was déjà vu all over again.

In contrast to the other candidates who gave each other props, Rudy and Romney mixed it up at several points throughout the evening. The Stiletto’s opinion Rudy came out on top in the skirmish with Romney over the line item veto:

Rudy: The line-item veto is unconstitutional. I took Bill Clinton to the Supreme Court and beat Bill Clinton. It’s unconstitutional. What the heck can you do about that if you’re a strict constructionist? … So I took President Clinton to court, and I beat him. And I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have a Republican presidential candidate who actually has beat President Clinton at something.

And they both reached past their debate opponents to take on Hillary:

Rudy: At the last Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton was asked by Tim Russert whether she agreed with my position on Iran. … [S]he was asked, would you take a strong position that Iran will not be allowed to become nuclear and that we would use a military option if we had to? And she didn’t answer the question. Well, you’ve got to answer the question. The answer is, yes, we would. Iran is a greater danger than Iraq.

Romney: “[V]is-a-vis meeting with most likely Hillary Clinton, … I know how to get a health care plan not just talked about but actually implemented. I know how to make sure that we keep our taxes down and our spending down. I know how to help American companies do business around the world and stop those foreign companies from coming in here unfairly. That’s what I’ve done throughout my career. I can’t wait to debate with her, because I’ve done it; she’s just talked about it.

Overall the proceedings were not as briskly paced as when Fox News hosts the debates. Instead of being the tortoise to everyone else’s hare, Thompson’s presence turned everyone into tortoises.

Even Huckabee was more subdued than he had been in other debates. The only flash of passion came from Tom Tancredo, in response to a question Matthews posed to all the candidates, “How do the Republicans win back confidence on the economy?” Bristling with indignation, Tancredo answered:

You want to raise wage rates in the United States. You want to reduce taxes in the United States. You want to encourage people to think about us as doing the right thing as Republicans do this – stop illegal immigration into this country. … We’re fighting Democrats now tooth and nail on every single thing, SCHIP – great. You know what? Standing on principle is a good idea; too bad we didn’t do it when we were in the majority.

Stop pandering. Stop pandering to all of these special interest groups. Do what’s right regardless of whether or not people all agree with you when you take – you know, this kind of put your finger in the wind. Do what you believe in. Stop pandering, they’ll believe in us.

The pace didn’t pick up noticeably during what was supposed to be a “lightning round,” but by then the candidates had gotten loose enough to start cracking wise a bit. Romney got the biggest laugh of the night with his quip that the debates were a lot like “Law & Order”: “It has a huge cast, the series seems to go on forever and Fred Thompson shows up at the end.”

The big surprise of the evening was that Rudy managed to answer questions about taxes, fiscal policy and global economics without weaving 9/11 into each and every answer – if only to show the skeptics that he can when he wants to.

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog.

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