When the eight contenders for the Republican presidential nomination shared a debate stage in Durham, N.H., last month, the first question they were asked was about the man not there.
On Tuesday, those eight were joined by a long-awaited ninth: former Sen. Fred Thompson made his debate debut to intense curiosity about his skills as a debater, and his place within the crowded field.
He exceeded expectations simply by being there, seeming smart, and not stumbling over his deep southern drawl.
Rival campaigns were respectful and complimentary about the Tennessean's performance. A Mitt Romney advisor said he "did a very good job," and one of Arizona Sen. John McCain's top strategists said he "reached the bar that had to be reached."
Rich Galen, a senior Thompson advisor, was more effusive.
"There's no bar that any rational person could have set that he didn't meet," Galen said.
Sponsored by the Michigan Republican Party, the debate focused on the economy in a depressed Michigan. It was the sixth major debate among Republicans, and the first since Thompson entered the race and moved toward the top of many polls. He is now consistently ranking second, nationally.
He received the honor of the first question from the moderators, and seemed to get a different type of question on a few occasions, with one designed to elicit a gaffe.
Moderator Chris Matthews started to ask Thompson a question about Canada, but interrupted himself to get a more basic answer.
"Tell me about the prime minister of Canada," Matthews asked. "How would you get along with — who is the prime minister of Canada?"
Thompson didn't miss a beat, answering "Harper," referring to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
For the last few days, the campaigns of Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani had engaged in a proxy war of news releases and e-mails to reporters over the issues of tax cuts and the line item veto. On stage at the debate, the two frontrunners attempted to distinguish themselves, resulting in one of the first direct attacks issued between candidates.
Giuliani, who has studiously avoided attacking other Republicans, so far in the election cycle, went after the former Massachusetts governor.
"I controlled taxes," Giuliani said. "I brought taxes down by 17 percent. Under him, taxes went up 11 percent per capita. I led — he lagged."
Romney responded in kind.
"It's baloney. Mayor, you've got to check your facts. No taxes — I did not increase taxes in Massachusetts. I lowered taxes."
Giuliani also contended that the line item veto, which Romney and others, like McCain, support, was unconstitutional.
"What the heck can you do about that, if you're a strict constructionist?" Giuliani asked.
The wide-ranging debate covered issues of global warming and the environment, free trade and how to restore the American people's confidence in government.
"The American people want us to stop the outrageous wasteful spending, which has caused our Republican base to become disenchanted and disillusioned," said McCain. "We're going to have to do some — make some decisions, and make some hard choices. The American people are ready to accept them."