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Thompson survives his first debate

Expectations were low, but the GOP presidential candidate passed a key test.

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If there was any doubt about the stakes for Fred Thompson at his first presidential debate Tuesday, his campaign put it to rest just 20 minutes into the two-hour forum. That's when aides churned out the first of what would be a dozen mid-debate e-mails to reporters, critiquing his rivals' answers and extolling Mr. Thompson's.

It was a game of real-time defense remarkable even by the standards of today's campaign spin rooms. But in the end, it may have been unnecessary.

Despite a few awkward pauses and an occasionally pained look, Thompson made no major fumbles and fleshed out some policy ideas in the sort of detail often absent on the campaign trail. His answers went from stilted to more assured as the debate wore on, and by the end, he was joking with moderator Maria Bartiromo of CNBC, whose final question dealt with his late entry into the race for the Republican nomination.

"I've got to admit, it was getting a little boring without me," Thompson quipped, to laughter from the audience in Dearborn, Mich. "But I'm glad to be here now."

The debate was seen as a key test for the "Law & Order" actor and former Tennessee senator. Since announcing his candidacy a month ago, his low-wattage stump speeches and seeming lack of preparation have drawn chilly coverage from both the mainstream media and conservatives, who had seen him as their best hope to rally disenchanted GOP voters.

The conservative columnist George Will recently compared him to the fast-fizzling New Coke. Dan Bartlett, the former counselor to President Bush, was quoted calling Thompson the campaign season's "biggest dud."

With such low expectations, analysts said, Thompson had merely to survive the debate to remain credible.

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