While the rest of the Republican field lined up on podiums for their 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.
Thompson's move was so overt, it could not be ignored. And all of the other candidates came ready with a Thompson joke. Some of them were even funny.
"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," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Sen. John McCain also got a dig in at Thompson for skipping the debate.
"Well, I think that's a decision that Fred should make. Maybe we're up past his bed time," he said.
"I like Fred a lot. ... I think he's done a pretty good job of playing my part on Law & Order," ribbed former New York mayor and prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani. "I personally prefer the real thing."
Giuliani has been leading national polls among Republicans, and Wednesday night he clashed with Mitt Romney, who also claims front-runner status because of his lead in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
On the subject of immigration, Romney hammered Giuliani for turning New York into a sanctuary for undocumented workers.
"This is a place where Mayor Giuliani and I just simply disagree," Romney said. "I think we should reduce federal funding to cities that call themselves sanctuary cities. 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 3 million illegals in this country becoming 12 million illegals coming into this country."
Giuliani responded by explaining that he set up a program where immigrants could report crimes without fear of being deported themselves.
"I had 400,000 illegal immigrants, roughly, in New York City. And I had a city that was the crime capital of America. I had to do something intelligent with them. I didn't have the luxury of, you know, political rhetoric," Giuliani said.
"I had the safety and security of the people of New York City on my shoulders. ...So the reality is, my programs and policies led to a city that was the safest large city in the country, so they must have been sensible policies," he added.
While Romney did not hesitate to go after Giuliani, others were more reluctant. 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 Sept. 11, 2001, did not to translate into national security experience, he would say only this:
"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. I admire that and appreciate it."
Giuliani responded in a manner that suggested he no longer views McCain as a serious rival.
"I have tremendous respect for Sen. 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," he said to applause. "I just happen to think that there's a better candidate: Me."
The biggest fireworks of the night came in this exchange between U.S. Rep. 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.
"We've dug a hole for ourselves, and we've dug a hole for our party," Paul said. "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 responded sharply: "Even if we lose elections, we should not lose our honor, and that is more important [to] ... the Republican party."
"We have lost over 5,000 Americans killed in — we've lost over 5,000 Americans over there in Afghanistan, in Iraq and plus the civilians killed," Paul retorted. "How many more you want to lose? How long are you going to be there? How long — what do we have to pay to save face? That's all we're doing, is saving face. It's time we came home."
A mixture of boos and applause that followed indicates just how divided even a Republican audience in New Hampshire is over the issue of Iraq.
Until 10:30 p.m., the stage belonged to the eight candidates in New Hampshire, but an hour later it was Thompson's turn in the spotlight on Jay Leno — he even dismissed the whole notion of appearing in a multi-candidate debate.
"I'll do my share, but I don't think it a very enlightening forum, to tell you the truth," he said.