WASHINGTON — For most of his first presidential candidates’ debate on Tuesday, Fred Thompson looked like a tennis umpire. Standing between Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, peering down from somewhere above the fray, he would swivel his gaze to the left, then to the right, then to the left again, as Sampras and Agassi traded serves, volleys and cross-court backhands.

You almost expected him to call the lines. “That one was out, Rudy. It’s deuce.”

Hey, at least Thompson was present and accounted for, finally. And he did get off a terrific line at the end, saying that the umpteen Republican debates had been “getting a little boring without me.” But if his goal was to advance the narrative that he’s the next Ronald Reagan — another Great Communicator with the instincts, presence and glamour of a movie star — he didn’t make much progress. I’d suggest a bit more time in rehearsal.

For one thing, Nancy would never have let her Ronnie show up for a televised debate wearing a jacket that draped so awkwardly at the neck. For another, it’s hard to imagine how an actor with such talent for exuding an air of supreme command — think of him in “Law & Order” or “The Hunt for Red October” — could fail to summon his inner Patton for such an important scene.

Yes, I’m focusing on style rather than substance. Thompson’s supporters might think that’s unfair, since he was arguably less vague on economic issues — the intended focus of the debate — than his major competitors. He offered a specific fix for Social Security, for example, saying he would index benefits to prices rather than wages. The others simply promised to make everything better by growing the economy, which apparently means eliminating all taxation.

But style, or the promise of style, is the only reason Thompson has been able to credibly enter the race so late in the game. If all that Republican primary voters wanted was a reliable social conservative, they could vote for Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter or Tom Tancredo, none of whom is tainted by long association with evil Hollywood. Thompson’s potential appeal to the party is that he can do that “District Attorney Arthur Branch” thing and make people believe in his wisdom and authority.

Getting a Republican elected president in 2008 is definitely going to require suspension of disbelief.

Thompson’s debut wasn’t a disaster, but it was far from a tour de force. His opponents have had months to burnish their sound bites to a lapidary shine. Thompson doesn’t have sound bites yet; the lines he seemed to have practiced came out soggy instead of crisp. He did get better as the evening wore on, but he gave Romney and Giuliani no reason to stop sniping at each other — or at Hillary Clinton — and turn any serious fire on the new guy.

Giuliani has the national poll numbers and a consistent message: Forget all those social issues and vote for me, or else Hillary wins and Bill comes back and the terrorists kill us all. Romney has those deep pockets and a clear advantage in the early states. John McCain has reassumed his most comfortable and effective persona, that of a professional wild card.

And Thompson? It’s still unclear just where he’s supposed to fit in. I’m not sure he’s quite escaped the impression, brilliantly parodied by Darrell Hammond on “Saturday Night Live,” that he sorta, kinda wants to be president but isn’t as energized or single-minded in pursuit of the office as his opponents.

That suggests a much healthier psychological makeup. But watching the debate Tuesday, you didn’t get the impression that any of the others were going to let him just amble to the nomination. From the way Giuliani and Romney went after each other, you could imagine how they’ll turn on Thompson the minute they perceive him as a real threat. As long as they stick with genteel “Law & Order” jokes, that’s a sign they think the Thompson boomlet may have already started to fade.

Amazingly, Huckabee was the only candidate with the instincts to realize that you can’t stand on a stage in Dearborn, Mich. — amid the ruins of the once-great U.S. auto industry — and try to convince an audience that the economy couldn’t be finer. If Thompson had managed to mix a little economic populism with his folksiness, he might have carried the evening. As it was, the evening seemed to carry him.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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