GOP Presidential Hopefuls Debate, Thompson Runs While the rest of the Republican field lined up at their podia for the fifth debate of the year, Fred Thompson announced his candidacy on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and made his presence felt by airing his first campaign ad on Fox during the debate's commercial breaks.
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GOP Presidential Hopefuls Debate, Thompson Runs

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GOP Presidential Hopefuls Debate, Thompson Runs

GOP Presidential Hopefuls Debate, Thompson Runs

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

There are now nine declared Republican presidential candidates. All of them were on television last night, but not in the same place. Eight candidates participated in a debate sponsored by FOX News and the University of New Hampshire. The ninth - former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson - appeared on "The Tonight Show" to finally announce his candidacy. After that, he began airing his first campaign ad.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: While the rest of the Republican field lined up at their podiums for their fifth debate of the year, Fred Thompson made his presence felt by airing his first campaign ad during the debate's commercial breaks. Thompson's move was so overt it couldn't be ignored. And all the other candidates came ready with a Thompson joke. Some of them were pretty funny.

MICHAEL HUCKABEE: I was scheduled to be on Jay Leno tonight, but I gave up my slot for somebody else because I'd rather be in New Hampshire with these fine people.


LIASSON: That's former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.

Senator John McCain also got a dig in at Thompson for skipping the debate.

JOHN MCCAIN: Well, I think that's a decision that Fred should make. Maybe we're up past his bedtime, but the point is I think...


RUDY GIULIANI: I like Fred a lot. I think Fred is a really, really good man. I think he's done a pretty good job of playing my part on "Law & Order."


LIASSON: And that's former New York City mayor and prosecutor Rudy Giuliani. He's been leading national polls among Republicans. And last night, he clashed with Mitt Romney, who also claims frontrunner status because of his lead in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

The subject was immigration. Romney has been hammering Giuliani for turning New York City into a sanctuary for undocumented workers.

MITT ROMNEY: This is a place where Mayor Giuliani and I just simply disagree. I think saying, as he did, if you happen to be an undocumented alien, we want you in New York. We'll protect you in New York. I think that contributed to three million illegals in this country becoming 12 million illegals coming into this country.

LIASSON: Giuliani responded by explaining that he set up a program where immigrants could report crimes without fear of being deported themselves.

GIULIANI: The problem that I had was I had 400,000 illegal immigrants, roughly, in New York City. And I had a city that was the crime capital of America. I didn't have the luxury of, you know, political rhetoric. I had the safety and security of the people in New York City on my shoulders.

LIASSON: While Romney didn't hesitate to go after Giuliani, others were more reticent. When FOX News anchor Chris Wallace invited John McCain to repeat comments he made to The New York Times this week that Giuliani's leadership on 9/11 did not to translate into national security experience, McCain would only say this.

MCCAIN: I say that Mayor Giuliani did a great job as mayor of New York City and led the country and inspired us after the tragedy of 9/11. And I admire that and appreciate it. I have spent my life in national security issues. I know the conflict. I know war. I have seen war. I have led. I was once the commanding officer of the largest squadron in the United States Navy. I didn't manage it. I led it.


LIASSON: Giuliani's response suggested he no longer views McCain as a serious rival, but is eager to associate himself with a candidate who still has lots of support in New Hampshire.

GIULIANI: I have tremendous respect for Senator McCain. I think I've said more than once, if I wasn't running, I'd probably be supporting him for president of the United States.


GIULIANI: I just - I'm sorry. All right. Well, I just happen to think that there's a better candidate - me. But, you know...


LIASSON: The biggest fireworks of the night came in this exchange between libertarian Congressman Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee. Paul is the lone anti-war candidate in the Republican field, and wants U.S. troops out of Iraq now.

RON PAUL: Oh, we dug a hole for ourselves and we dug a hole for our party. We're losing elections and we're going down next year if we don't change it, and it has all to do with foreign policy and we have to wake up to this fact.

HUCKABEE: Even if we lose elections, we should not lose our honor, and that is more important to the Republican Party.

PAUL: We're losing - we've lost over...


PAUL: We have lost...


PAUL: We have lost over 5,000 Americans over there. How many more you want to lose? It's time we came home.

Unidentified Man: Gentlemen, thank you.


LIASSON: As you can hear from the mixture of applause and boos, even a Republican audience in New Hampshire is divided about Iraq.

HUCKABEE: 30 p.m., last night belong to the eight candidates in New Hampshire. But an hour later, it was Fred Thompson's turn to have the spotlight all to himself. On the "Jay Leno" show, he even dissed the whole notion of appearing in multi-candidate debates.

FRED THOMPSON: I'll do my share, but...

JAY LENO: All right.

THOMPSON: ...I don't think it's a very enlightening forum, to tell you the truth.

LIASSON: And at 12:01 a.m. this morning, Thompson formally announced his candidacy on his Web site. Today, he begins a three-day tour of Iowa, his first as an official contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Durham, New Hampshire.

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