Fred Thompson appeared to pass his first big test of his late-starting presidential bid -- his first campaign debate -- though not necessarily with flying colors.
In answer to his first question, he said that while federal spending needs to be brought under control, current tax policies are working and the country is not headed to recession. On his second question, he pledged to be tough with China on dangerous products, but defended free trade as crucial to economic prosperity.
He called for lower taxes, including phasing out the alternative minimum tax, which was designed to make sure the wealthy pay income taxes but is now impacting the upper middle class.
On Iraq, he said he supports the current anti-insurgency policy in Iraq, but faulted the Bush administration for not going in with enough troops and not knowing what to expect.
Thompson said it is crucial to stabilize Iraq and "not have to leave with our tail between our legs" because the country is one front in a much broader war with Islamic fascism, which is intent on bringing down Western civilization.
On Iran, he said its suspected nuclear program must be stopped because the entire Middle East would become more dangerous and Iran would threaten the US oil supply.
He said while there are times that the president needs to act to stop an imminent attack, the president should seek authorization from Congress for military action "in any close case" to build national support.
He suffered no major gaffes, but many of his responses were rather vague and lacking specific proposals. Thompson also had a noticeable habit of looking down at the lectern -- studying notes? -- while answering.
His campaign sought to lower expectations for his performance, noting that his rivals have already had five debates, while acknowledging Thompson has spent quite a bit of time practicing.
Thompson has not exactly wowed voters on the campaign trail, leading to a series of stories questioning his knowledge of current events and whether he has the fire in the belly to seek the presidency. Still, he is in second place in most national polls, and many conservatives still hope he will emerge as a strong candidate.
Among the other contenders, Mitt Romney said the 7.45 percent unemployment rate in Michigan is unacceptable and pledged to work with the auto industry to preserve jobs.
He and Rudy Giuliani also continued their battle over taxes and spending. Romney repeated accusations that Giuliani fought the presidential line-item veto and supported a commuter tax, and said he used a similar veto 844 times while governor of Massachusetts.
Giuliani said the line-item veto is unconstitutional and claimed he cut taxes 23 times while mayor of New York.
Toward the end of the debate, Romney got off one of the best lines, saying that the debate was like "Law and Order:" a huge cast, a series that seems to go on forever, and Thompson comes on at the end.
For his part, Thompson in his closing remarks said he was happy to join the fray: "It was getting boring without me."