If there was any doubt about the stakes for Fred Thompson at his first presidential debate Tuesday, his campaign put it to rest just 20 minutes into the two-hour forum. That's when aides churned out the first of what would be a dozen mid-debate e-mails to reporters, critiquing his rivals' answers and extolling Mr. Thompson's.
It was a game of real-time defense remarkable even by the standards of today's campaign spin rooms. But in the end, it may have been unnecessary.
Despite a few awkward pauses and an occasionally pained look, Thompson made no major fumbles and fleshed out some policy ideas in the sort of detail often absent on the campaign trail. His answers went from stilted to more assured as the debate wore on, and by the end, he was joking with moderator Maria Bartiromo of CNBC, whose final question dealt with his late entry into the race for the Republican nomination.
"I've got to admit, it was getting a little boring without me," Thompson quipped, to laughter from the audience in Dearborn, Mich. "But I'm glad to be here now."
The debate was seen as a key test for the "Law & Order" actor and former Tennessee senator. Since announcing his candidacy a month ago, his low-wattage stump speeches and seeming lack of preparation have drawn chilly coverage from both the mainstream media and conservatives, who had seen him as their best hope to rally disenchanted GOP voters.
The conservative columnist George Will recently compared him to the fast-fizzling New Coke. Dan Bartlett, the former counselor to President Bush, was quoted calling Thompson the campaign season's "biggest dud."
With such low expectations, analysts said, Thompson had merely to survive the debate to remain credible.
"I don't think he shot up, but he didn't hurt himself," says Ronald Rapoport, a political scientist at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Early in the debate, Thompson "didn't seem like someone who had been in a lot of movies and TV – he was the actor who didn't really act very well," Dr. Rapoport said. "But I think he finished much stronger."
Thompson got off to a halting start. Asked the first question, about whether the economy was drifting toward recession, he said, "I see no reason to believe we're headed for," then paused, as if with stage fright, for several seconds, before resuming, "for economic downturn."
His delivery wasn't as polished as his GOP rivals, who had debated five times before. But he sounded more confident later in the evening, taking a hard line on national security and taxes and outlining his plan to shore up Social Security by linking benefits to inflation instead of wages.
He also managed to remind voters of his Southern roots, seen as an asset in the race. He salted his answers with expressions like "eating our seed corn" and offered to explain to the others on stage who Goober and Gomer were. (They were characters in a 1960s sitcom set in a fictional North Carolina town.)
One potentially fatal trap was set by another moderator, Chris Matthews of MSNBC, who asked Thompson to name the prime minister of Canada. "Harper," Thompson replied, correctly. "Prime Minister Harper."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who leads in polls in some early primary states but faces a stiff challenge from Thompson in South Carolina, was the only Republican candidate Tuesday to make an issue of Thompson's late entry to the race. He likened the string of GOP debates to the NBC series "Law & Order": "It has a huge cast, the series seems to go on forever and Fred Thompson shows up at the end."
Thompson looked momentarily stunned before recovering. "And to think, I thought I was going to be the best actor on the stage," he said, drawing laughter.
Until his debut on the debate stage Tuesday, Thompson's campaign was like a plane flying below radar.
A drawn-out exploratory period let him raise and spend money with less scrutiny than declared candidates and shielded him from attacks from other Republicans. When he finally chose to declare his candidacy on Sept. 6, it was on safe turf, in Hollywood. The announcement, on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," came the same night his rivals were enduring the rigors of a televised debate in New Hampshire.
In a potentially troublesome sign, the prevailing image of him as lazy and uncomfortable in crowds leapt into pop culture last weekend via "Saturday Night Live."
"Now I'm not saying I don't want to be president because I kinda do," said comedian Darrell Hammond, parodying Thompson. "It's just how do you campaign when you don't like hard work and people make you sick?"
A Thompson campaign spokesman, Darrel Ng, said Tuesday that it was his critics in the media – not Thompson – who were out of touch with ordinary voters.
"Senator Thompson talks in a language that all Americans understand," Mr. Ng said in a phone interview shortly before the debate. "He's plainspoken … and that may not be what the Washington elite is used to hearing. But we feel he's connecting with the voters."
Ng pointed to the national polls, where Thompson is running second to former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said Thompson's debate performance put him on equal footing with his rivals. "He's now running with the pack," Mr. Perkins said Wednesday.
• Staff writer Linda Feldmann contributed to this report.