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Republican Debate Primer

Seeking to blunt the star power of soon-to-be presidential candidate Fred Thompson, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is set to announce that actor Robert Duvall has endorsed him in the 2008 presidential race.

Duvall, an Academy Award winner perhaps best known for his portrayal of Tom Hagen in the "Godfather" movies, is not only endorsing Giuliani but will also host a fundraiser later this month at his Virginia home for the former mayor.

"I don't normally get involved in politics, but I think the stakes are too high this election," Duvall said. "Rudy has consistently proven he's ready to confront tough challenges."

The Duvall endorsement comes just hours before Thompson is set to enter the race in an appearance on "The Tonight Show." Thompson has used his celebrity status -- and the name identification that goes with it -- to catapult himself into the top tier of candidates, which is led by Giuliani. Within Thompson will be a formally announced candidate and will have to prove whether there is any steak behind the sizzle.

All of the other Republican candidates, except for Thompson, are gathered in New Hampshire tonight for another debate hosted by Fox News Channel.

We'll be liveblogging the debate starting at 9 p.m., but in the meantime here's our primer on what to expect tonight.

Thompson will loom large -- both literally and figuratively. His campaign is paying for a television ad to run during the debate. The ad, which was produced by Nelson Warfield, features Thompson speaking directly to the camera, urging Americans not to "allow ourselves to become a weaker, less prosperous and more divided nation." The ad also directs people to Thompson's Web site where he promises to talk more about his views tomorrow. Thompson is scheduled to signal his candidacy on "The Tonight Show" this evening and follow it up with a tour of early primary states and an appearance on Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes show on Thursday.

From a political strategy perspective, it's tough to know whether skipping tonight's debate is savvy or short-sighted by the Thompson campaign. On the one hand, the former Senator is clearly hoping to cast himself as above the current field -- a candidate of big ideas -- and the longer he is able to avoid appearing on stage with the others in the race, the better he is able to make that argument.

On the other hand, by skipping the debate, Thompson furthers the story line that he wants to be coronated as the nominee rather than really work for it. The sooner Thompson can dispel the idea that he is a lazy politician who wants to run for president by posting on conservative blogs and appearing on conservative talk shows, the better his chances of winning the nomination. (It's not by accident that on the day Thompson prepares to officially join the race, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign launches an ad showing him running and touting his "energy" to solve problems.)

Aside from watching how many subtle (or not-so-subtle) shots the candidates take at Thompson during tonight's debate, make sure to watch the dynamic between Romney and Giuliani. The campaigns of the co-frontrunners for the nomination have been increasingly willing to engage one another over the past month or so -- especially on the issue of immigration.

Expect Romney to politely point out Giuliani's record on immigration when he was mayor of New York City and for Hizzoner to push back by questioning how much Romney really did to crack down on illegal immigration as governor. Giuliani's rhetorical trump card, which no candidate has yet been willing to play against Romney, is to label the former Massachusetts governor as a flip-flopper for his position switches since entering public life. Giuliani may not see engaging Romney as worthwhile, however, as national polls continue to show the former mayor with a comfortable lead nationally although trailing Romney in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

The biggest x-factor in tonight's debate is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who retains a base in New Hampshire and seemed to signal a more aggressive tact in the race when he told the New York Times that only he among the presidential candidates had been an early critic of the Iraq War strategy pursued by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and an early advocate of the surge.

McCain is a second tier candidate -- at best -- at the moment but can make life difficult for Romney, Giuliani and even Thompson tonight if he forces them to offer more detailed thoughts on how we got into Iraq and how we should get out. To date the top tier candidates have played nice, supporting the surge while offering only gentle criticism of the Bush policy. McCain might change all that tonight.

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 5, 2007; 5:17 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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Next: Liveblogging the Republican Debate: A Disclaimer

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