When is an appearance in Bedford, N.H., superior to one on “The Tonight Show”? Answer: When you’re running for president and the New Hampshire primary is four months away. 

Last night, the Republicans who participated in the GOP New Hampshire debate helped themselves far more than Fred Thompson, who announced his long anticipated candidacy on “The Tonight Show” in L.A. Thompson doesn’t need national identification. He has that. He does need GOP “street cred” by building organizations in the early primary states. There is no more finicky electorate than the good folks of New Hampshire, and the local media, led by the Union Leader, was strongly critical of Thompson for skipping this debate. Fred Thompson may be in the race, but he will be playing catch-up big time in the early primary states.

As for the main event in New Hampshire, most reaction favored Sen. John McCain as the winner of the debate. I agree that this was his strongest performance so far. He seemed confident and purposeful. He speaks with the most AUTHORITY of any candidate and his pronouncements on Iraq, torture, security and federal spending struck home with viewers. Even fellow candidates Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee praised his courage and tenacity. He did himself a LOT of good in this debate. Best line: “Nothing we could gain from torture could possibly be worth the damage to the integrity of our country.”

Rudy Giuliani was criticized for bringing every answer back to his record as mayor of New York City. He was repetitive, but he didn’t make any major errors and weathered the now familiar jabs at his personal life and abortion views. He is clearly most comfortable talking about leadership and how he is a man of action.  Best line: “I take only one pledge and that is to uphold the U.S. Constitution.”

Mike Huckabee continues to do well in these encounters. His poll numbers indicate that he is flirting with breaking into the first tier of candidates. He scored well by mixing it up on foreign policy with everyone’s favorite foil, Ron Paul. His “Fair Tax” proposal, which is a national sales tax, sounds fishy to me, but few know the details. Best line: “FedEx tracks packages better than the federal government keeps track of illegal aliens.”

Mitt Romney gave a workmanlike performance, but like the other encounters, it was nothing special. He faced hard questioning from Chris Wallace and a viewer about past comments he made about immigration and his sons’ service in his campaign. He seemed to want to separate himself a bit from the Bush surge policy, but quickly fell in line under criticism from McCain. It remains to be seen how well he will wear as the primary campaign grinds on. Best line (a comment on Thompson’s entry): “What’s your hurry? Stay out a little while longer.”

Three other candidates, Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, and Sam Brownback, tried hard, but did nothing memorable. Every utterance by Ron Paul is memorable, memorable for ultra-libertarian views totally unconnected to the realities of the terrorist threat of the 21st century.

There’s far more to come. As the Carpenters song says, “We’ve Only Just Begun.”