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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

Free trade is one of the issues that may arise in the Republican candidates' debate later today in Michigan. Another debate isn't necessarily news in a primary season crammed with political face-offs. But this is the first time the group will be joined by their newest competitor for the nomination: actor and former Senator Fred Thompson.

Mike Murphy is our Republican political consultant who's run campaigns for John McCain and Mitt Romney. We asked him what he would be looking for in today's debate.

Mr. MICHAEL MURPHY (Republican Political Consultant): Well, I think it's going to be a big night, either good or bad for Senator Thompson, because he has for several months with great success teased the process. He's kind of been running around in a Superman outfit with a lot of, you know, speculation about how fantastic he'll be. Now he's shown up, and the first thing he has to do is lift up a locomotive. So he has high expectations. And the last three weeks of his campaign have been a little shaky. So I think tonight is a huge opportunity for him. But because his expectations are so high, if he doesn't do well, I think you're going to start seeing people writing kind of soft obituaries on his campaign.

AMOS: And what are you going to watch for in how the other candidates respond to him?

Mr. MURPHY: Well, I'm not sure there'll be a lot of that. I think there'll be two stories tonight. One, just Fred's performance. How good is he at answering questions? The media thinks he's kind of been shirking the more detailed issue answers, so I think there'll be a little grinding on him on that, how well he handles it. And the other story will be the emerging battle between Romney and Giuliani, who are both starting to engage each other, throwing some elbows, sending out nasty press releases.

And I think the media, which often runs these debates kind of like at a legal dogfight, likes to rub their noses together and see if they bite each other for good television, will be very focused on seeing if they can have a big scramble between Romney and Rudy. And then finally, you've got the other candidates trying to break through, get a little of that precious airtime, have a million dollar sound bite, have something happen, so they can claim victory in the debate. So it ought to be an interesting night.

What's happened is that voters are finally starting to tune in. This campaign has been about the insiders for eight or 10 months. Now we're close enough to the actual primary dates that real voters in those early states are starting to focus. And now the action's going to start.

AMOS: Let's go back to Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. On paper, these guys look very similar, but they aren't in person. So is that why they have to go after each other? Is that the way that you differentiate each other?

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah, I think that it's an interesting situation. Romney is one or two clicks more conservative than Giuliani, but he's running about four or five clicks more conservative. And you know, the Republican primaries are dominated by conservative voters. So what Romney is trying to do is make sure Rudy Giuliani, who gets great benefits from his days in New York as mayor, the things people like about it, also pays an ideological price for the fact that he was a pretty liberal mayor by Republican standards in New York, which is kind of the reality of New York City politics.

So Romney, I think, is trying to slow Giuliani down, who has a lead, but most Republican professionals think it's very fragile lead. Conversely, Romney has some vulnerabilities because when he was governor of Massachusetts he took some positions that were not Republican primary voter orthodoxy. So you got two guys, each with a glass jaw, each doing well enough, they have something to protect, and each looking at a clock that's running out. So I think the fighting is going to start. And you know, it will be issue based on who's a better conservative on fiscal, social issues - things like that. And I think Romney has a slight edge in this, but it could go either way, depending on kind of how well and how skillfully they each put each other's record into the frying pan.

AMOS: Now, Mike, this is supposed to be a debate on economic issues, but that doesn't make people scramble to turn on their television. So are they going to try to slide in some of those other issues that make the blood boil a little bit more?

Mr. MURPHY: Well, I think the moderators won't. They're played by the so-called rules. But the first rule of any debate from a candidate's point of view is ignore the rules. And so if you're a candidate and your advantage - if you're a Mike Huckabee and you like to talk about social issues or if you're Mitt Romney, you want to edge Rudy Giuliani on it, you do that in the, you know, context of how you answer a question. Though I think the format will stick mostly as advertisers. There's plenty of economic stuff to talk about in debate, but I think the war in Iraq will come up, terrorism will come up, and I think social issues will come up. There's really no way to completely control a debate like this.

AMOS: I saw a quote by Mitt Romney, which may be the truest thing he ever said, which is the fun thing about this stage in politics is that almost everything that's being written will be proven wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah, he has a good sense of humor about that. It is true - there's a great distortion filter in this and how are things covered. Context is often lost, and it becomes a big cloud of people making charges and countercharges, and everything everybody is saying is mostly true - though that's the art of politics, you know, mostly true versus totally true. And I think you'll see a little bit of that.

AMOS: Thank you very much. Mike Murphy is a Republican political consultant.

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