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Strategically placed at center stage for his first presidential debate, Fred Thompson towered over the other candidates. But he didn’t stand out.

Instead, more established debate pros, like Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, got the lion’s share of zingers and sound bites. Even Mitt Romney stole some of Thompson’s thunder with the line comparing the Republican field to “Law & Order.” “It’s got a huge cast, the series goes on forever and Fred Thompson shows up at the end,” he said.

“And to think I was going to be the best actor on stage,” replied Thompson.

But the bigger problem was that precious little time was spent explaining just exactly what a worker who has been laid off should do to find employment.

Instead, Thompson and many of the other candidates talked up the merits free trade and low taxes, or made attacks on trial lawyers and government regulation. Or Romney and Giuliani sparred over who raised taxes and who didn’t, or the merits of the line-item veto. Those are definite cues to the base looking for the next Ronald Reagan, who now looms over all of these GOP forums, but they offered little beyond abstract lines about Chinese trade policies and corporate tax rates. Few sounded empathetic. 

Even Reagan, in his 1980 and certainly 1984 campaigns, was at least able to offer a sense of reassurance.   

By contrast, when Thompson was thrown the first question of the afternoon, he started sounding oblivious to the fact that the debate was being held in economically hard-hit Dearborn, Michigan.

Asked if the U.S. was headed to a recession, Thompson answered, “I think there is no reason to believe that we are headed to a recession.” Then he fumbled for a bit, perhaps realizing where he was before clarifying his point to note that “there are pockets of the economy that are having difficulty.”

It brought to mind the old cliche: When you lose your job, it’s a recession. When I lose my job, it’s a depression.

Other candidates noted the disparity. “They’re going to hear Republicans on this stage talk about how great the economy is, and, frankly, when they hear that, they’re going to probably reach for the dial,” said Mike Huckabee.

McCain said that “wealth creates wealth,”  and later noted that while manufacturing jobs have been lost, eliminating what had been a ticket to the middle class for many with only high school diplomas, some 50,000 now make their incomes off of selling products on eBay. It was hard to know if he thought it was a good thing or a bad thing. Nor was it easy to figure out what he thought of the tax code. He at one point said he thought the tax code was fair “because the bulk of the taxes are paid by wealthy people,” but later said that the “tax code is inherently unfair.”

At first sounding as if he were having a chit chat at a late-night cocktail party, Thompson’s performance did improve, he seemed more comfortable and he even eaked out a few smiles.  Moreover, he didn’t really commit a gaffe — that honor belonged to Romney, who said he would have to consult with lawyers before deciding whether a president would have to get Congressional authorization before attacking Iran.

But this debate was billed as one about economic issues — and on that note it was surprising that the field offered so little when it came to addressing what they would do about lost jobs, lost homes, or lost savings.  After two hours, you even started to yearn for a sugary dose of “morning in America” — but the actor among them has yet to wake up to it.