THE NOTE: Rudy, Mitt Rumble on Fred's Night

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That wasn't so hard, was it, Fred? Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., wasn't terrible, and maybe that was all he needed to be to exceed the ridiculously low expectations (and he can thank Dan Bartlett for keeping them low).

But Thompson also didn't seem like he needed to be on stage last night, and that may be a more worrisome sign for him and his supporters. Amid all those optimistic guys, talking up everything and everyone except taxes and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Thompson had a really good podium position to watch what's fast becoming the main event in the GOP nomination fight.

Either Thompson was right to stay away for as long as he did -- since not even a TV star looks larger than life on a stage stuffed with white men -- or he's a bystander in the tussle that's shaping the Republican race for president (for better for worse). Notwithstanding the awakening of his oppo-research team (welcome to the game, guys), Thompson "largely watched from the sidelines as rivals Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani clashed over who can return the party to its fiscally conservative roots," Michael Finnegan and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times.

The spat between the two blue-state some-time moderates -- Romney, R-Mass., and Giuliani, R-N.Y. -- "spilled from the campaign trail onto the stage, with each accusing the other of failing to keep taxes low and to control spending," Michael Shear and Dan Balz report in The Washington Post. Giuliani won the round: His zinger, "I led. He lagged," beats Romney's "It's baloney." (And Romney -- enjoying home-field advantage in Michigan -- has to know the last thing a Republican wants to hear is that the president is going to check with his lawyers before responding to a nuclear threat.)

"Their increasingly fierce confrontation is starting to dominate the race for their party's nomination," Adam Nagourney and Marc Santora write in The New York Times. Both men offered enough statistics to fill the CNBC ticker, and the battle continued in reporters' e-mail inboxes. "Most of all, they clashed over a line-item veto that Mr. Romney said was essential to reducing spending in Washington and that Mr. Giuliani challenged successfully in the Supreme Court." (And Giuliani was unwavering in defending Joe Torre -- splitting the Yankee-fan vote.)

As for Thompson, he didn't stink, but he didn't dazzle, either. He seemed not to realize that the Michigan economy is in shambles, and that three-second pause early on in a question about whether a recession is coming was about two seconds shy of going from "something's caught in his throat" to "wow, this man is silent on stage." But he recovered, even passing the prime-minister-of-Canada pop quiz, and -- considering that any gaffe could have been fatal -- he seemed to have done his homework.

"In time, Mr. Thompson sounded increasingly practiced and prepared, as if he had pulled a series of all-nighters in preparation for his coming-out role," Mark Leibovich writes in The New York Times. "He exuded a certain joylessness for much of the proceeding, speaking in a solemn monotone and almost never smiling. It was as if he were taking an oral examination, and in a sense he was."

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