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Thompson targets the leading teachers group

December 12, 2007 |  2:20 pm

Restrained and constrained.

If this campaign season's YouTube debates -- and a few others -- often provoked free-wheeling and unpredictable exchanges, today's forum in Iowa among the Republican presidential candidates was about as buttoned-down as they come.

Want Mike Huckabee to better explain his 1992 comment that AIDS sufferers should be quarantined? Want to hear more about what he meant by recently wondering aloud, ''Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?''

We did, but the producers and questioner for today's debate decided not to go there. Presumably, those and other controversial topics will get a full airing in the coming days, but that won't happen in face-to-face encounters (the forum was the last for the GOP candidates before the Jan. 3 caucuses).

The Times' Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan covered the debate, and their story can now be found here (as well as in Thursday's print editions).

We do have to give moderator Carolyn Washburn credit for asking a good question about education -- not only because the subject is often ignored on the campaign trail, but because ...

it sparked a noteworthy outburst by Fred Thompson against the National Education Assn. -- the nation's leading teachers union.

Washburn asked the candidates to identify the biggest impediment to improving public education.

Thompson was clear and direct in his response, making the case for giving families, especially low-income ones, greater latitude in choosing the schools their children attend, presumably through a government-backed voucher program.

"The biggest obstacle, in my opinion, is the National Educational Assn., the NEA," said Thompson, who up to now hasn't exactly set pulses a-racing with his somewhat leisurely approach to seeking the White House.

He continued: "I read time and time again, every time someone wants to inject a little choice into the equation for the benefit of the kids, inject a little freedom, inject a little competition ... the NEA is there to oppose it and bring in millions and millions of dollars to go on television and work and scare people and misrepresent the situation on the ground.

"I think that that just goes against everything that we know that can make progress in this country. We're a nation of freedom and innovation and choice, and well-to-do people are out in the suburbs. They don't seem to care that much. Inner-city people need a chance to enjoy (school) choice ... Let's give it to everybody else and let's stop people from standing in the way of that."

Mitt Romney a few minutes later endorsed Thompson's bashing of the NEA.

Thompson also earned one of the loudest laughs from the debate crowd when, answering a question about who bears the nation's heaviest tax burden -- the wealthy, the middle class, the poor, corporations -- he cracked: "My goal is to get into Mitt Romney's situation, where I don't have to worry about taxes anymore."

Romney, who came from a well-off family and then made millions as a businessman, started to note that, as a successful actor, Thompson isn't exactly hurting. But before he could finish, Thompson cut him off, saying: "You know, you're getting to be a pretty good actor."

Odd, that in perhaps the year's most phlegmatic debate, Thompson should show flashes of the style that once caused many to think he would sweep into the race and lap the field. That expectation long ago evaporated; the question for him now is whether he can stage a late rally.

-- Don Frederick

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