DEARBORN, Mich. — Fred Thompson made his debate debut in the 2008 Republican presidential campaign Tuesday, then blended into the established cast of characters that all but ignored him and often talked around him.
Despite a considerable pre-debate buildup about his late entry, the former Tennessee senator and actor was barely a factor in the two-hour exchange on economic issues, showing neither the acting flair that might have elevated him above the pack nor the lackadaisical performance that would have set him back.
The debate largely featured near-unanimous calls for tax cuts, lower federal spending and free trade. It likely did little to shake up the race, which features four candidates in the top tier: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Thompson.
In perhaps the best line of the evening, Romney likened Thompson's late entry into the debates to his often-late appearances in his TV series.
"This is a lot like 'Law & Order,'" Romney said. "It has a huge cast, the series seems to go on forever and Fred Thompson shows up at the end."
Said Thompson: "And to think I thought I was going to be the best actor on the stage."
Asked at the end how the debate had felt, Thompson said: "Just like home.
"I've enjoyed watching these fellows," he said of the eight rivals who had already debated five times without him. "I've got to admit, it was getting kind of boring without me."
Thompson's long anticipated entry signaled the start of the final stretch of the primary campaign leading up to January's voting. He leaped into the top tier of public opinion polls alongside candidates who have already spent tens of millions of dollars and countless hours campaigning — a testament to the fact that the Republican Party is far from settled on its candidates.
Giuliani leads in national polls of Republicans; Romney leads in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
The most pointed exchange of the event came between Giuliani and Romney over taxes and spending, a confrontation that included exaggerated claims of their own successes and sometimes biting criticism that reflected rising tension as voting draws nearer.
Giuliani started the spat by asserting that he cut taxes 23 times and restrained spending while mayor of New York. He said Romney raised taxes and spending.
"I led," Giuliani said. "He lagged."
"It's baloney," said Romney. He argued that he cut taxes and held spending growth lower than his rival had, while countering that Giuliani fought to keep a commuter tax and helped kill a presidential line-item veto that would have helped control pork-barrel spending in Washington.
"Mayor, you've got to check your facts."
Independent groups said, however, that both men were wrong in their assertions. They said that Giuliani, for example, didn't cut taxes as much as he claimed and that Romney did raise taxes and fees.
The two men argued past Thompson, who stood between them at center stage.
Moderator Chris Matthews of MSNBC tried to catch Thompson at one point, asking him to name the prime minister of Canada. "Harper," said Thompson, referring to Stephen Harper.
Thompson didn't directly criticize any of his rivals, nor did any of them take him on directly.
Behind the scenes, however, Thompson's opposition research team sent out a barrage of e-mails criticizing Giuliani and Romney throughout the debate, noting in detail the errors in their claims about taxes and spending.
As expected in a Republican debate on economic issues, all the candidates expressed their support for lower federal taxes.
Huckabee called for a Fair Tax, a version of a national sales tax that would replace the income tax.
Thompson called for an overhaul of the alternative minimum tax after extending it for one year indexed to inflation.
All of them promised to rein in federal spending, though few offered any details of how they would do that. One candidate, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, said he would set up an independent commission, modeled after the ones that chose which military bases to close, to recommend spending cuts.
Also participating in the debate were Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Reps. Duncan Hunter of California, Ron Paul of Texas and Tom Tancredo of Colorado.
VETTING THE CANDIDATES
Republican presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney clashed over their records on taxes. Here's the truth:
_ Giuliani said he cut taxes 23 times as mayor. But FactCheck.org, a non-partisan group, said Giuliani can claim credit for only 14 tax cuts. State government or the city council initiated the rest.
"In fact," the watchdog group said, "he strongly opposed one of the largest cuts for which he claims credit, reversing himself only after a five-month standoff with the city council."
FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
_ Romney also said he cut taxes.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said, however, that Romney "has a little problem with accuracy."
Cato said that business taxes increased during Romney's term by $140 million and that fees increased by $500 million. Romney also proposed another $170 million in increased business taxes in his 2006 budget.