The economy took center stage in Tuesday's GOP presidential debate, but the candidates seemed tone deaf on how to help the middle class.

The debate in Dearborn, Mich., was also the first for actor and former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, a latecomer to the Republican fray.

Thompson at least acknowledged that the nation has some significant economic problems. That came as a surprise to the other candidates, who love to say low taxes, with a sprinkle of free trade, are the answer to economic prosperity.

Newscaster Maria Bartiromo, one of the moderators of the debate, which was sponsored by CNBC, MSNBC and The Wall Street Journal, cited a survey that said two-thirds (read lower and middle classes) of the populace believe the economy is in recession.

She asked what the candidates would do to solve the problem. None of them understand that wages remain stagnant in America, and the middle class require better jobs.

Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, who I think won the debate, was best prepared to answer the question. He suggested everyone, including business and government, had to pitch in to help the economy. He recognized the need to fix schools, invest in technology, encourage free trade and keep taxes down. He took a shot at Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, by jokingly suggesting he was "nervous she would put a tax on the debate."

The other top candidates provided nonanswers. Thompson stumbled on his talking points, but said there were "pockets of difficulty."

Front-runner and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani wants to keep cutting taxes. He's a supply-sider, just as George Bush proclaimed himself in a recent press conference.

John McCain doesn't get the fact that there are huge income disparities.

I guess deficits don't matter, just keep cutting taxes. But if you ask the middle class, credit card debt (or national debt) actually matters sooner or later. Middle-class citizens also want to know what will happen to Social Security and Medicare. They didn't get an answer tonight.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul suggested that monetary policy favored the wealthy over the poor and contributes to income disparity. Paul wants to get rid of the Federal Reserve, which he said is printing money.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had the best feel for the pain of the middle class. His answer is the fair tax . The plan backs a national, progressive retail tax. You pay taxes only on what you buy -- no income tax or other taxes. While that sounds simple, it's problematic for low-income people who often depend more on consumption than the wealthy do.

The consistent discussion of taxes created the best interaction of the debate. Romney has been pounding Giuliani lately over his record on taxes in New York. He continued his assault Tuesday.

Romney attacked Giuliani for successfully challenging the presidential line-item veto all the way to the Supreme Court. Romney pointed out that he successfully used the line-item veto more than 800 times to fight spending. He also aligned himself with Ronald Reagan -- a major proponent of the line-item veto. I think the Reaganesque tone of his argument will help him with the Republican base.

Giuliani came off as defensive on the issue. He defended fighting for the $250 million dollar earmark, the loss of which he said would hurt New York City, not realizing that that is exactly where spending becomes a problem. He tried to rationalize beating the line-item with "I beat Bill Clinton" and "I'm a strict-constructionist about the Constitution ."

Fair trade did come up, though nobody mentioned a Wall Street Journal poll suggesting that the Republicans have lost interest in it recently.

Romney was able to work in that he's the only savvy businessman who has the ability to negotiate good deals. He said Americans can no longer operate at a disadvantage on trade.

McCain understands you can't just bash China. Fair trade has been a cornerstone of successful economic policy, and cheap shots at the Chinese will hurt the country in the long run. Thompson echoed McCain on the issue.

Giuliani seemed to be stuck on saying, "Hey, let's sell things to these people." Gee, thanks, Rudy, considering that China and India make up half the population of the world. He didn't mention the difficulties that arise from bad trade deals or enforcement of those deals. It has been hard to crack Chinese markets.

Some of the candidates on the stage need to get real and get out of the race. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback claimed that the lack of families was our greatest economic challenge. OK.

Colarado Rep. Tom Tancredo can't help but work in "stop illegal immigration" in every answer. California Rep. Duncan Hunter wants China sanctions. Enough already, guys .

Romney had a strong night. He has gotten better at working in his talking points and jokes -- like saying the debates have been like a Law and Order episode, with Thompson coming in at the end. He emphasizes optimism and strength, which might just play well.

Huckabee had a good night; he seemed to understand Republicans need to connect better with the middle class, but it's not clear it will help him in the race.

Giuliani did not have his best night. The line-item veto issue isn't good for him, and he said nothing to help his cause. Thompson was just OK. He understands there are big problems, but he didn't really offer any answers. Moderator Chris Matthews of MSNBC highlighted this at one point by editorializing that Thompson's initial "no" to a question was better than the rumbling and stumbling that followed it. McCain had a steady debate and didn't hurt himself.

What struck me is that the Republicans didn't offer any hope for the middle class tonight. The middle class got some tax cuts under George Bush, but this hasn't helped their economic status. The GOP has to find a new way, aside from lower taxes, to talk to the middle class.