Republican presidential candidates, including new entry Fred Thompson, squared off in their latest debate, this time in Dearborn, Mich., a legendary car town in a state hit hard by job losses in its automotive industry.
The economy was the primary focus and the talk centered on free trade, taxes, labor unions and energy. The event was also notable for the debut of Thompson, a former senator and actor who joined the race for the GOP nomination last month.
Most of the talk going into Wednesday's debate was about Thompson. Would he have command of the issues? Would his performance inspire confidence in a campaign that has been panned on its first road trips?
Last night, he shared the stage with eight other GOP hopefuls, but moderator Maria Bartiromo of CNBC turned first to Thompson. She cited a poll showing that two-thirds of Americans think the United States is either in a recession or headed toward one and asked Thompson whether he thinks the economy is strong.
Thompson responded that he is upbeat about the economy.
"We're enjoying low inflation, we're enjoying low unemployment, [the] stock market seems to be doing pretty well. ... I see no reason we're heading ... for an economic downturn," he said.
After that, Thompson seemed to find his footing. There were no gaffes, but also no big moments for Thompson, who looked to be just another contender in the mix of candidates.
Front-Runners Square Off
To some degree, Thompson was upstaged by sharp exchanges between the other contenders, notably front-runners former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
For weeks, in campaign materials and news releases, Romney has been going after Giuliani as a "big spending, big city" mayor. Giuliani has fired back by citing Romney's record as governor.
"The point is, that you've got to control taxes," Giuliani said. "I did it; he didn't."
"I led; he lagged," Giuliani added.
Romney responded that it was "a nice line, but it's baloney."
"Mayor, you've got to check your facts. ... I did not increase taxes in Massachusetts; I lowered taxes," the former governor said.
Another moment of conflict came when Sen. John McCain was asked about a poll that shows the public has more trust in Democrats than Republicans on handling the economy. McCain responded by cataloging the failures of the Bush administration.
"Our failure at Katrina, our failures in Iraq, our failures to get spending under control — we've got to restore that trust and confidence," he said.
"The American people want us to stop the outrageous, wasteful spending which has caused our Republican base to become disenchanted and disillusioned," McCain said. "We're going to have to make some tough decisions and make some hard choices."
While most of the questions dealt with the economy, national security issues also came up. On the threat posed by Iran, MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked Romney if, as president, he would need to go to Congress to get authorization to take military action against Iran's nuclear facilities.
Romney said he would "sit down" with attorneys, "but obviously the president of the United States has to do what's in the best interest of the United States to protect us against a potential threat."
When the same question was put to Texas Rep. Ron Paul, he nearly leapt over his podium.
"This idea of going and talking to attorneys totally baffles me. Why don't we just open up the Constitution and read it? You're not allowed to go to war without a declaration of war," he said.
Romney and Giuliani did have moments of agreement, however, especially when it came to anticipating their party's opponent in the 2008 election. They both said it was likely to be Hillary Clinton.
"She's going to give out $1,000 to everybody," Giuliani said.
"I can't wait to debate with her," Romney said.
By the end of the debate, newcomer Fred Thompson was asked whether he enjoyed the experience. He said he had, adding that things had gotten boring without him.