On eve of debate, actor steals show

As the GOP presidential hopefuls prepare for tonight's debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, the Republican making the most headlines lately won't be there.

Actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson hasn't officially announced his candidacy, but he's made more news in contemplating a run for the White House — including likely trips to the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire in the near future — than many candidates have after months of campaigning.

The media's fascination with Thompson, known more for his role as the New York City prosecutor on the television series "Law & Order" than his eight years of service in the Senate from 1994 to 2002, shows just how wide open the race for the Republican nomination may be. Since the 1976 campaign, the GOP has always had an established front-runner in place, but that is not the case in 2008 — despite the candidacy of Arizona Sen. John McCain, a popular upset winner over establishment favorite George W. Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire presidential primary.

"It's an unusual position for Republicans," said Charlie Arlinghaus, a veteran GOP activist and president of the Josiah Barlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord. "But I think having an established front-runner has hurt us in the past. We might have a more wide open debate this time."

Arlinghaus said the task for most of the lesser-known candidates in tonight's debate will be to "introduce themselves and establish more carefully who they are and hopefully get the media to pay attention to them, to write stories" about their candidacy. "Very few of the candidates are as well-defined as Hillary Clinton," he said about the Democrat front-runner.

The nationally televised debate is sponsored by CNN, WMUR-TV and the New Hampshire Union Leader and comes two days after the Democrats held their first debate in the state's primary season. In addition to McCain, nine other GOP candidates will try to set their candidacies apart from the rest. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has led in early polling nationally but is locked in a tight race with McCain in New Hampshire. Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney has raised and spent the most money and has been the first to run extensive television advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire — a gamble that might have paid off for the former venture capitalist who jumped in the polls in both states.

The other contenders, who have yet to establish major campaign presences in the state, include Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas; former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Jim Gilmore of Virginia; and sitting Congressmen Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Ron Paul of Texas and Duncan Hunter of California.

The Republicans have already had two debates that have focused a lot on the war in Iraq and national security. This will be the first since an agreement was reached on comprehensive immigration between President Bush and the Democrat-led Congress. Immigration is a major issue for GOP voters, and the candidates — especially McCain and Romney — have already begun to exchange rhetorical fire. Even in New Hampshire, which has less of an illegal immigrant problem than most states, immigration could become a major topic of contention tonight.