Rich Galen

DISCLOSURE: For those who came in after the opening credits, I am a paid advisor to the Fred Thompson Presidential campaign.

* Roger Simon of Politico.com handicapped the Republican Presidential debate in his curtain-raiser thus:

* Has there ever been a major presidential candidate with lower expectations on the eve of his first debate than Fred Thompson?

All he has to do is not fall asleep.

All he has to do is not throw up.

All he has to do is not drool.

* The debate, which was co-sponsored by CNBC, MSNBC and the Wall Street Journal, was held on Tuesday in Dearborn, Michigan a few hundred yards from the Ford Motor Company headquarters.

* It was Thompson's first debate. The most previous debate, which had been held in New Hampshire, occurred on the night that Thompson appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno to announce he was entering the race.

I have said to reporters a number of times over the past month by suggesting the cries of "foul" by the Republican candidates who were in New Hampshire that night might have had just the slightest tinge of envy green.

I invented this fictitious question by one of those candidates to his staff: "How was it that Thompson got to sit next to Jay Leno and I had to stand next to Ron Paul?"

* The buzz around Thompson was deafening in the run-up to the debate. It was do or die for Thompson.

Fox News: [Thompson] is trying to surpass low expectations for his performance and prove that he's in the contest for real and prepared to be president.

The Baltimore Sun: Thompson entered his premier televised debate as a presidential candidate today with remarkably low expectations. That's the way he wanted it.

Washington Post: This Afternoon's GOP Debate Is Seen As A Crucial Test

MSNBC.com: So are the expectations artificially high or low for Thompson? Probably a combination of the two.

* The press corps which was gathered in the filing center seemed as interested in the pre-game body language of Thompson communications director, Todd Harris, as they were in discussing who-needed-to-do-what over the course of the ensuing two hours.

* Here's a tip for the political geniuses at NBC: Two hours is too long.

* And here's another tip for those same political geniuses: Two hours is also too long for Chris Matthews to act like a professional.

* In the end Thompson did fine. He did better than fine and he even came close to the bar the press had reset - after the debate was over. CBS claimed he hadn't "dominated" the debate, which no one had suggested was necessary for a guy in second place in nearly every poll; the Chicago Tribune wrote about the who's-the-best-tax-cutter mini-debate between Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani by pointing out it "took place with Thompson standing awkwardly in between" the Governor and the Mayor.

* My own take is this: Thompson did way well enough. After his nervousness at answering the first question out of the box, he settled down and used facts when necessary, rhetoric when necessary, home-spun common sense when necessary and humor when appropriate.

* Romney and Giuliani are polished debaters in this, their sixth or seventh appearance and now seem willing to go after each other: Romney because he needs to show he's still in the top tier despite being stuck in single or low-double digits in national polls; Giuliani because he can use a fight with Romney to maintain his lead over Thompson without directly engaging him.

* It didn't appear to me that Sen. John McCain was particularly on his game; his campaign had announced he had given a speech at the Detroit Economic Club at noon and it is likely he left his game in the on-deck circle there.

* The big loser was Mike Huckabee. Huckabee is still in this thing largely on the strength of his previously excellent debate performances. But whether it was the fact that Thompson was on the stage for the first time, or because Huckabee is running out of gas, he was just another second-tier guy in at the Dearborn debate.

* Final thought? Never underestimate the value of lowering expectations.


Rich Galen

Rich Galen has been a press secretary to Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich. Rich Galen currently works as a journalist and writes at Mullings.com.