The threat that Fred Thompson's shadow would hover over Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire never materialized.
In fact, the eight candidates on stage quickly—and with rehearsed humor—dispatched Thompson's announcement that, after fits and starts, he was a candidate, just not in time for the debate.
"Maybe we're up past his bedtime," said Sen. John McCain, at 71 the oldest candidate in the race.
With provocative prodding by the questioners from Fox News, which televised the 90-minute debate, the contenders wrestled vigorously and, at times, contentiously over the two issues destined to define the battle for the Republican nomination: Iraq and immigration.
What emerged was a snapshot of where these candidates have positioned themselves moving into the heavy fall campaign season, from front-runners Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, to down-but-not-out McCain, and dark horse Mike Huckabee:
Romney, the candidate with perhaps the most to lose by Thompson's entrance into the race—both are courting social conservatives—has calculated that one of Giuliani's greatest weaknesses with Republican voters is his record on illegal immigration. Last night Romney ramped up his criticism of the former New York mayor for allowing illegal immigrants "sanctuary" in the city but was hit himself for presiding as governor of Massachusetts over a handful of cities there that were allowing similar sanctuary. Romney also endured one of the toughest unscripted moments of the debate when, invited to ask a question, the quietly emotional father of an Iraq soldier said he was "offended" that the candidate on the campaign trail had compared his sons' campaign work to service in Iraq.
Giuliani uttered one of the most surprising lines of the night: "I'm not running on what I did on September 11." And throughout the debate, he avoided references to that day, instead repeatedly stressing the economic revival of New York City during his tenure as mayor. For a lame-duck mayor whose reputation and sagging political fortunes were revived by his leadership in the days after the terrorist attacks, this indicated that he may have decided that with enduring criticism of his performance before and after the catastrophe—from, among others, firefighters and their families—the issue is too fraught. (He also was embarrassed recently after his claim that he spent almost as much time at ground zero as rescuers was quickly disproved.) So expect Giuliani to continue to emphasize as his White House credentials New York City's turnaround in the 1990s and perhaps let the images from 9/11 speak for themselves.
McCain continued to aggressively promote positions on Iraq and immigration that have contributed to his precipitous fall from presumptive nominee to struggling to stay in the game. He supports the war and "surge" in Iraq—"it's working," he admonished Romney, who had said it was "apparently working." And he has not backed off of his support for an immigration bill he sponsored that has proved unpopular with the Republican rank and file. But in post-debate interviews with members of a focus group assembled by Fox, the Arizona senator was overwhelmingly declared the winner—largely for the blunt talk he prides himself on. It could simply signal the lack of enthusiasm GOP voters feel for the rest of the pack or McCain's continuing ability to project leadership. In a dig at Romney, who portrays himself as the consummate manager, McCain referred to his own days heading a Navy squadron. "I didn't manage it," he said, "I led it."
Huckabee, seeking to break into the top tier of candidates, sought to portray himself as a conservative uniter and a nice guy—unafraid to say that racism has played some role in the heated debate over immigration and insisting during a heated back-and-forth with Ron Paul, who advocates immediate withdrawal from Iraq, that the nation as a whole has to deal with the mistakes of the war. "We're there," he said. "We bought it because we broke it."