THE NOTE: Opening Night for Thompson

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Just in time for Fred Thompson to enter (stage right), here's a handy cheat sheet for him, in case he's been too busy chillin' with George Allen, Liz Cheney, and Spencer Abraham to bone up on the gang he's sharing the spotlight with this afternoon:

Rudy Giuliani will be the guy who speaks too fast (though no longer too loose). Likes to talk about: 9/11, tax cuts, the Yankees (though maybe not so much today), Hillary Clinton. Doesn't like to talk about: abortion, gun control, lightning, James Dobson.

Mitt Romney will be the guy with the million-dollar smile (and multi-million-dollar wallet). Likes to talk about: the Olympics, tax cuts, his hair, abortion (now). Doesn't like to talk about: abortion (circa 1994 and 2002), religion (his own), car trips with pets.

John McCain is the guy who looks like John McCain. Likes to talk about: drunken sailors, the "Straight Talk Express," "my friends." Doesn't like to talk about: immigration, fund-raising, polls, George W. Bush.

Mike Huckabee is the funny one -- laugh at his jokes. Ron Paul will say something about the Framers -- probably best to condemn it. Sam Brownback is the religious one -- nod approvingly when he speaks. Tom Tancredo will link immigration to a question about the nuclear non-proliferation -- agree with him, though not too vigorously. Duncan Hunter is also a candidate for president. No, we're serious, he is.

As for you, Fred, you're the star -- for better or worse. Name your acting cliché -- it's showtime, opening night, the big debut, and Thompson, R-Tenn., needs to break a leg. Will he dazzle the crowd with a mastery of details matched only by his physical presence, as he looms over a stage populated by semi-anonymous white men? Or will he stammer something about "American values" and crack a flat joke about the good ol' days, while flubbing questions on the AMT and welfare reform?

Here's already been panned by everyone from Robert Novak and George Will (and Richard Nixon) to the writers on "Saturday Night Live." Now -- in part because he waited as long as he did to jump into the race, and in part because these sorts of forums need to belong to him -- Thompson will be judged harshly on his performance.

ABC's Christine Byun sees Thompson downplaying expectations (is that really necessary in this case?): "I am a little -- probably a little rusty -- on my sound-bite responses," Thompson told reporters. "These other guys are polished, they're very smooth in their responses, they've had a lot of practice, so I just hope I can hang in there with them." Byun points out that his speaking style hasn't won him rave reviews yet -- but at least he's used to speaking without notes.

Look for some policy specifics -- and, of course, plenty of style -- when Thompson takes the stage. "I think our goals are to look presidential and to build on this feeling that people feel comfortable with this notion of Fred Thompson as president," Bill Lacy, Thompson's campaign manager," told The Tennessean's Bill Theobald. "And to look substantive." (Is that different than BEING substantive?)

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