First things first: He didn't stumble, he didn't mumble, he didn't yawn and he didn't forget his lines, so Fred Thompson beat the incredibly low expectations facing him in his first Republican presidential debate.
But Thompson did more than just pass a dumbed-down test. Although the former senator started out slowly why couldn't he clear his throat before he went on stage? he soon got into a comfortable groove and gave good and sometimes very good answers. He spoke clearly and concisely on the economy, taxes and the war, and, in contrast to some of his stump appearances, seemed to know what he believes and what he wants to say.
He was bullish on the virtues of free trade, forceful on the need to fight "Islamic fascism" and savvy on the alternative minimum tax. Saying we had to first reduce spending before we abolished the tax, he argued the short-term fix was to index the tax for inflation so it wouldn't hit so many middle-class Americans.
And Thompson had his folksy Tennessee wits about him enough to draw laughs with some one-liners. "I thought I was going to be the best actor here," he good-naturedly fired back after Mitt Romney used a clearly rehearsed line to make a joke at Thompson's expense.
My scorecard says Thompson's impressive performance will boost his already-solid spot in the polls. He is second in most national surveys and in some key state races. He probably won't grab the lead, but, for two hours at least, he proved he can play in this league.
How Thompson would do was the main plot of the Michigan debate, but the secondary plot taking shape also is important. With Rudy Giuliani still the national front-runner, Romney came out eager to keep their rumble over tax cuts going and to bash Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton as much as Giuliani does.
He was good, but probably not good enough to make a major difference. Giuliani feels at home on both topics and they resonate with GOP primary voters, so he stood his ground.
Giuliani began the back-and-forth as Mr. Nice Guy, passing up a chance to throw the first punch. But Romney is so far behind in the national polls that he has decided he needs to rough up the leader, so he used the issue of tax cuts to throw his sharp elbows. He accused Giuliani of resisting the elimination of New York City's commuter tax true and of suing President Bill Clinton to eliminate the line-item veto true again.
Both issues were the right thing for Giuliani to do as the fusion mayor of New York both involved fairness and money for the city but neither looks good in a national GOP primary for the White House.
After Romney's broadside, Giuliani flashed some anger, insisted he was a bigger tax cutter and ended by saying, "I led, he lagged," to which the former Massachusetts governor responded, "That's a nice line, but it's baloney. Mayor, you've got to check your facts."
Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, seemed to have trouble hearing most questions directed at him and appeared cranky and even bored. His performance was a regression and will be another setback for a campaign that can't stand many more.
No matter, for the GOP race is shaping up as the mirror image of the Democratic one. Each is a three-person race, and threatening to get whittled down to two. On the Dem side, John Edwards is a distant third to Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, just as Romney trails Giuliani and Thompson.
The main difference is that Clinton is pulling away from her rivals, while the GOP race is more fluid. Yet that could be an advantage to the Republicans, with all of them free to turn their fire on Clinton and drive up her negatives. Giuliani has been doing it for weeks, arguing he is the only Republican who can beat her. He mentioned her frequently on health care, Iran, the economy as he tried to turn her into a pinata.
The tactic is working for him so far, but he might want to keep an eye on his back: Romney is out to get him, and Thompson is gaining on him. Should be interesting.