Thompson Prepares for GOP Debate Debut

Thompson downplays debate performance, says he doesn't play "by strict rules."

ByChristine Byun
February 18, 2009, 11:33 AM

Oct. 8, 2007 — -- Since entering the 2008 presidential fray last month, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson has admitted he's a "little rusty" when it comes to debating but he has also promised to do it "early and often." He'll make his debate debut in Michigan Tuesday, standing side-by-side with his GOP rivals for the first time.

The actor and lawyer was absent from last month's debate, which was attended by the wide field of Republican candidates, opting to upstage his party rivals that evening by instead announcing his candidacy on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." Thompson also skipped a PBS-sponsored debate at Morgan State University, which the other leading GOP candidates -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain -- also missed.

The last time Thompson seriously prepped for election debates was more than a decade ago as a Tennessee senator. According to his campaign, to prepare for Tuesday's verbal sparring with the Republican pool, Thompson has been practicing at home in mock debate sessions with campaign advisers, including former New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, according to his campaign.

"He's never going to be as slick as some of the other candidates, or as politically correct as some of the other candidates. But he will be the most authentic," said Thompson communications director Todd Harris. "With Fred Thompson, what you see is what you get."

Thompson himself has been playing the expectations game by downplaying his much anticipated performance. At a press conference in Chicago last Thursday, Thompson spoke matter of factly, describing himself as someone who doesn't like to play by the rules.

"I'm just going to the best that I can. I am a little -- probably a little rusty -- on my sound bite responses," Thompson said. "I'm not used to playing by strict rules, you know, either on the Senate floor or in the courtroom or any place like that."

Indeed Thompson often chooses his own script in public appearances, which has caused several verbal missteps in his first weeks of his candidacy. In his folksy stump speeches, he speaks unguided by notes, often casting broad overviews of issues.

Most recently, Thompson mistakenly referred to Russia as "the Soviet Union" during a chat with Radio Iowa last week.

As for his physical presence, Thompson periodically likes to drift about the stage while speaking rather than stay confined to a podium. His staffers know to clear the podium before his 6 foot 5 inch figure glides onto the stage, a courtesy that he will not have tomorrow at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center.

Thompson also projects a grave tone, regularly punctuating his points with pregnant pauses and somber stares. During a campaign stop in Iowa last Monday, after he was met with silence following a speech, Thompson had to ask for applause, noting he had to "drag" it out from the audience.

In question-and-answer sessions with voters, his responses are lengthy, meandering around his personal experiences and relying heavily on his deep Federalist beliefs.

Tuesday's debate will provide Thompson, running second to Giuliani in the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, a new venue for expression. Harris said his campaign is "certainly aware" that other candidates will be focusing on him as the newcomer to the debate stage.

When asked last week about the upcoming debate and his opponents, Thompson said, "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," before smiling and gliding on to another reporter's question.

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