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Giuliani-Romney Brawl Could Elevate Thompson

As the two squabble over taxes and the line-item veto, GOP voters could turn elsewhere.
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The Republican presidential race has reached a boiling point. The top two contenders, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, have tussled over who has the better record on taxes.

Giuliani and Romney removed their gloves during the debate in Michigan and started landing blows in the aftermath. But the winner coming out of this conflict could be the guy who hasn't been hit at all -- Fred Thompson.

The Romney camp's apparent strategy is to turn this into a two-person race. On Tuesday, I

touched on the Giuliani/Romney debate battle.

Romney is attacking Giuliani on two fronts: taxes and the line-item veto. He first jabs at Giuliani for endorsing a tax increase on commuters coming into New York City that left them $360 million poorer. Romney's researchers dug up a quote from a May 1999 story from

The New York Times

: "Earlier today, Mr. Giuliani assailed the Legislature for seeking to end the commuter tax, saying that if anything, it should be higher." This counters Giuliani's proclaimed record of 23 tax cuts.

But Romney's best line of attack is the line-item veto, which Romney used more than 800 times in four years as governor. Giuliani led the fight to defeat it all the way to the Supreme Court. Romney's team points out that Giuliani didn't beat President Bill Clinton, but Speaker Newt Gingrich and a horde of fiscal conservatives who had worked hard to pass it in Congress. Gingrich was proud to announce the bill's passage on Ronald Reagan's 84th birthday. It's always good to be on Reagan's side in the GOP.

Giuliani hasn't taken the attacks sitting down. He hit back on taxes, arguing that he's been more effective at cutting taxes than Romney. Both faced hostile Democratic legislatures during their tenures. But the Associated Press reports that Giuliani had better success cutting taxes, to the tune of about $5.8 billion. Keep in mind, though, that Giuliani held office twice as long as Romney, who spent considerable time absent from his job as governor positioning for a run in 2008.

Romney made himself an easy target when the debate turned to Iraq. Romney said:"You sit down with your attorneys, and they tell you what you have to do, but obviously the president of the United States has to do what's in the best interest of the United States to protect us against a potential threat."

The Giuliani camp pounced on this, sending out

emails to supporters blasting this as a "lawyer test" to handle national security decisions. Presidents, not lawyers, are elected to lead. Giuliani's camp likened this to John Kerry's infamous call for a "global test" during the 2004 presidential race, which hurt his image on national defense. It's not clear whether Romney's innocuous statement will be seen as a blunder.

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Giuliani's strategy throughout the campaign has been to turn attacks toward Sen. Hillary Clinton, (D., N.Y.). This could lead his camp to compare Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts to Clinton's recent proposal.

I don't expect the Romney campaign to let up on Giuliani until national polls begin to change. One possible change Romney will not like: a surging Fred Thompson. The former Tennessee senator has begun to tick back up in polls, including a move into

second place in Iowa.

Thompson avoided the attacks in the debate, aside from Romney's joke about

Law & Order

(

see video here), to which Thompson adeptly replied, "And to think I thought I was going to be the best actor on the stage." This quip helped Thompson.

It also helps Thompson that many GOP voters remain undecided in the race and lack enthusiasm for the two politicians from the Northeast. Republican delegate rules also help. The GOP system favors states that have elected Republicans, which would diminish the role of that states Giuliani and Romney are expected to win, including California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania.

And, if Republican voters are ruling out candidates based on tax voting records, they won't find much to complain about with Thompson, according to the

Club for Growth.

But Thompson has to do more than just avoid problems and win the South. He has a small window of opportunity now to articulate his message and explain why he joined the race. If he nails it, he will be a contender. His next best chance will be the Fox News debate Oct. 21 in Orlando.

Sometimes winning an election comes from not losing. If Romney and Giuliani hurt each other, Thompson could quietly wind up standing tall in this race.