Mary Katharine Ham

“Russians don’t take a dump, son, without a plan.” -- Adm. Painter, "The Hunt for Red October"

But does Fred Thompson do a debate without one?

Fred’s long-awaited debate debut happens tonight, and a fledgling campaign plagued by hype and the failure to live up to it will find itself center-stage, under the microscope, and a thousand other clichés. Bottom line? We’re watching you, Fred.

The other Republican candidates have had the advantage of participating in five debates before tonight’s. Their gaffes, such as they’ve been, have been spread out over months. Giuliani’s surprisingly unclear abortion answers have drifted away and made way for a more coherent stance. Mitt Romney’s solid performance over several debates bolstered him when he came under serious fire, sometimes flinching, during the last one. And, McCain, though not a front-runner for many Republicans, is undeniably so experienced on the debate stage that he needn’t worry about gaffes.

Fred, as a result, will remain the untested spectacle of this debate, the New Guy standing between Romney and Rudy. The build-up has been so long and expectations so high that the chances of Fred underperforming are perhaps unfairly inflated. But that’s the way he chose to do this. Perhaps he knows something we don’t.

He’s reportedly held between seven and nine practice debates at his campaign headquarters over the past two weeks.

And, Fred’s campaign is doing its best to lower the gargantuan expectations:


''We think that we'll hold our own, but obviously every other candidate on the stage has been going to these debates all year long. They've already gone through their preseason. This is our first scrimmage,'' said Todd Harris, a Thompson spokesman. ''The most important thing for us is for Fred's message and answers to connect with Republican voters, and that's been our focus.''

I saw Fred speak for the first time on the trail on Friday and was underwhelmed. When I wrote that I was underwhelmed, I was accused of gratuitous Fred-bashing by some, but I’m rooting for the guy tonight.

What can he do to ward off the underperformance?

Look alive!

There’s a name for a folksy, Southern candidate who radiates malaise. It’s Jimmy Carter. Don’t be that guy!

Fred’s ultra-laid-back speaking style could be an asset. He has the personality to be cool under fire and parry opponents’ attacks with a wry raise of the eyebrow and a dry joke. Too often, however, during the campaign “relaxed” has ventured into “bored” territory.

Fred should look for a couple of opportunities to interject tonight, take issue with an opponent’s characterization, and speak beyond his allotted time if he’s on a roll. Any of them—better yet, all of them—would go a long way to showing he truly cares about the issues and the presidency.

Remember, optimism always wins!

It’s an oft-quoted fact of American presidential politics that the optimistic candidate always wins. That little nugget comes from a study by University of Pennsylvania psychologists that found that Americans voted for the most optimistic candidate in both primaries and general elections from 1948 to 1988, with only one exception.

I saw both Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani address a crowd of fiscal conservative activists in Washington Friday. Rudy got rave reviews while the much-anticipated Fred speech—everyone was rushing to the ballroom to hear him—fell a little flat.

Part of the reason, undoubtedly, is that Rudy telegraphed inspiration while Fred telegraphed exasperation. Fred’s head-shaking at the federal government’s excess and the failures of Republican leadership is understandable. In fact, his attitude is a perfect reflection of the morale of the Republican base, but I have a feeling the base is a little uncomfortable seeing that reflection held up in front of it.

When the American people are discouraged, they like encouragement from candidates, not commiseration. The contrast on Friday was that Rudy knew how to communicate his exasperation by poking fun at the federal government’s absurdity. He did it with a smile on his face and a promise to make things better. Fred could stand to add a little of that New York sunshine to his Smoky Mountain act.

Be secure.

When I first heard Fred Thompson was considering getting into the race, I was looking forward to having a guy so self-assured on our side. He seemed to have a Cheney-esque toughness about him, the kind of supreme confidence that withers doe-eyed vice-presidential candidates from North Carolina with a single gruff word.

Thompson’s performance on the trail has shown him to be more gaffe-prone than I had expected, so I’m hoping a prepared performance tonight could restore my confidence in his confidence. When he’s on the trail, Fred has been vague about policy plans—Friday, he touted a plan to get a bunch of smart people together and solve problems—but a few specifics would help tonight. An entire debate without any is too reminiscent of John Kerry’s famous “I have a plan, have you heard about my plan, let me talk about my plan” debate performance of 2004.

The two-hour debate is today at 4 p.m. on CNBC. It will be replayed at 9 p.m. on MSNBC. Here’s hoping by the end, we can say, “Fred Thompson don’t do a debate, son, without a plan.”


Mary Katharine Ham

Mary Katharine Ham is editor-at-large of HotAir.com, a contributor to Townhall Magazine.

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