As quips ricocheted around him, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson largely stayed away from the one-liners during his first presidential debate yesterday, sticking to the low-key style that has drawn derision during his month on the campaign trail.
In a highly anticipated appearance, Thompson shared a Dearborn, Mich., stage with eight other candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination, giving a national audience its first opportunity to directly compare the 65-year-old actor with other contenders for the White House.
Debate organizers knew that attention was on Thompson, and they threw him the first question - on the state of the economy. He later became the subject of mild ribbing from other candidates for his high-profile late entrance to the race.
Asked at the end how it went, Thompson said, "Just like home." As the audience laughed, he added: "I didn't say which kind of home."
Thompson might have felt comfortable but not more so than former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or Arizona Sen. John McCain. Thompson had a hard time grabbing the spotlight from his chief rivals, who were debating one another for the sixth time.
The stakes were high for Thompson's debating debut. He entered the race with much fanfare a little more than a month ago, hoping to capture the hearts of conservatives by channeling Ronald Reagan and by bringing a thespian's flair to what many viewed as an unsatisfying Republican field.
But it has been a rocky start. He has fumbled for answers to questions on topical issues such as the Jena Six case and oil drilling in Florida's Everglades, raising doubts about how much preparation he was willing to invest to get the job.
The national punditry has found him unengaged and uninspiring. "A human snooze button," wrote one national magazine writer. An "overhyped underperformer" concluded a New York Times columnist.
Against that backdrop, the consequences for yesterday's debate were "huge," said Bill Brock, a former Republican National Committee chairman and labor secretary in the Reagan administration. Thompson needed time in a competitive arena, he said, to develop the skills to continue an effective campaign.
"Everybody was expecting [him] to come in and just blow out the field," said Brock, also a former senator from Tennessee. "His delayed entrance, in effect, kept him from getting toned up."
Thompson absorbed few body shots yesterday, but he didn't deliver many, either.
His answers to questions on the economy, energy and trade - the debate was sponsored by The Wall Street Journal and carried live on CNBC and later on MSNBC - were gaffe-free, delivered in the slow Southern lilt familiar to TV viewers fond of the district attorney he played on Law & Order.
"We are eating our seed corn," Thompson said in response to a question on how to preserve Social Security and Medicare for future generations. "We're pitting one generation against the next."
In talking about the alternative minimum tax, a headache for increasing numbers of families, Thompson said: "When the Democrats start targeting the rich guy, if you're a middle-class guy, you ought to run to the other side of the house, because you're going to get hit. They're not going to be on target."
Near the debate's conclusion, he passed a pop quiz issued by MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who asked Thompson to identify the prime minister of Canada. (Thompson correctly named Stephen Harper, using only the last name.)
But Thompson didn't have the best lines of the night.
During a lively exchange between Romney and Giuliani over who cut more taxes and controlled more spending, Thompson was literally stuck in the middle.
He stood silently as his rivals, one at a lectern to his left and the other at one to his right, positioned themselves as the true fiscal conservative.
"I brought taxes down by 17 percent. Under him, taxes went up 11 percent," Giuliani said. "I led, he lagged."
Countered Romney: "It's a nice line, but it's baloney," challenging Giuliani to "check your facts."
Over the course of two hours, Thompson did little to differentiate himself from his competitors or the current administration. He seemed most comfortable talking about Iraq, but his position could have been scripted by the Bush White House.
"I think the policy we're engaged in now is the right one," he said, adding that the Iraq war is "showing signs of progress."
Thompson said he agreed with McCain's position on when a president needs to seek authority from Congress to go to war (not if a terrorist attack is imminent) and with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's view on alternatives to oil (ethanol, solar power, nuclear and other sources must all be "on the table.")
But his answers provided little meat for observers such as American University Professor Allan J. Lichtman, who said before the debate that Thompson "lacks focus and energy" and has a message that is "little more than a string of platitudes."
"However, he is doing well in many polls because he is the vote for 'none of the above,'" Lichtman said.
An average of national polls compiled by the nonpartisan Web site RealClearPolitics shows Thompson with 20 percent support, second only to Giuliani, who has 28 percent. He is running strong in some early voting states. In South Carolina, Thompson is in a virtual tie with the former mayor, several surveys show. An Iowa poll published by The Des Moines Register last weekend showed that Thompson had eclipsed Giuliani, 18 percent to 11 percent, and was second behind Romney, who had 29 percent.
Those numbers reflect that "Republican conservatives are desperately seeking a candidate," Lichtman said. "Right now, Thompson seems to be their best choice."
But social issues did not come up during yesterday's debate. There was not a single reference to abortion, gay marriage or stem cell research, wedge issues that have dominated Republican politics for years.
Those issues have arisen at past debates, and they surely will again. Until then, Thompson will have time to polish the one-liners that were used effectively against him yesterday.
Perhaps the best canned line of the night came from Romney, who said the long series of Republican debates "is a lot Law & Order."
"It has a huge cast, the series seems to go on forever, and Fred Thompson shows up at the end," Romney said.
Thompson didn't miss a beat.
"And to think," he responded, "I thought I was going to be the best actor on the stage."