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

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"Thompson's performance slowly ticked upward from its low start, but his answers, while often soothing, rarely moved beyond agreeing with other candidates and endorsing broad principles such as free trade," The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos writes. "Luckily for Thompson, it is still two months before most voters start making up their minds, and he can comfort himself by realizing that his performance yesterday wasn't a disaster -- and, for that matter, that it set low expectations for his future debates."

"At times he seemed more co-star than star, making quips based on the remarks other candidates made," ABC's Jake Tapper reported on "Nightline" last night. "A problem for Fred Thompson is that in many ways he's not just running against candidates like Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain -- he's also in a way running against District Attorney Arthur Branch."

Writes Politico's Roger Simon, "I thought that in his first debate Fred Thompson would come across as either bright or dumb. I forgot about dull." Nobody on stage seemed to find the need to engage Thompson, except for Romney, who delivered his (Doug Gamble?) line as the debate was winding up, saying the debates are like "Law & Order": "huge cast, the series seems to go on forever, and Fred Thompson shows up at the end."

It didn't help Thompson that, just in time for his debut, former Bush adviser Dan Bartlett's assessment of the GOP field became public. Thompson wins the label of Bartlett's "biggest dud." "The biggest liability is whether he had the fire in the belly to run for office and be president," Bartlett said at a recent speech. "So what does he do? He waits four months, fires a bunch of staff . . . [and] comes out with his big campaign launch and gives a very incoherent and not very concise stump speech for why he is running for president. I think he peaked last spring, when he said he was thinking about running."

Other Bartlett highlights: On Romney: "I think the Mormon issue is a real problem in the South, it's a real problem in other parts of the country, but people are not going to say it. . . . What they're going to say is he is a flip flopper." On Giuliani: "best message." On Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.: "biggest wild card." And on former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark.: "best candidate."

Bartlett was speaking only for himself -- but could he be providing some clues into the thinking of his former boss? "What Dan was saying yesterday is not that far from what President Bush thinks -- particularly on Mayor Giuliani and Senator McCain and Mike Huckabee," George Stephanopoulos said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "Those seem to be the candidates that the president thinks are doing best right now."

Back at the debate -- McCain seemed to like the 4 pm ET start, and was comfortable talking about over-spending, but he was a ("straight talk") non-factor, neither taking on the other candidates nor being challenged himself. ("Of course I would support me," he said, in his best line of the day.) Not as many highlight-reel quips from former governor Huckabee, who needs the kind of momentum money can't buy him. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, said enough to appeal to the sort of folks who want to hear his (unique) message.

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