Rookie Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson said Tuesday he doesn’t think he waited too long to enter the race.

“It seems about right to me,” the former U.S. senator and actor said in the closing minutes of a televised two-hour debate in Dearborn, Mich.

“I’ve enjoyed watching these fellows,” Thompson quipped about the other eight candidates in the field. “I’ve got to admit it was getting a little boring without me, but I’m glad to be here now.”

The debate, sponsored by MSNBC, CNBC and the Wall Street Journal, focused mostly on the economy, but in response to one question Thompson said he supports the current U.S. military policy in Iraq.

“I think we’ve got to take advantage of the opportunities that we have there now that we see a window of opportunity for things to turn around and us to stabilize that place and not have to leave with our tail between our legs,” Thompson said. “If we did that, it would make for a more dangerous United States of America.”

Thompson said the war is part of a greater threat, a “global war” declared by “Islamic fascism.”

“They look at it as something that has been going on a long, long time,” he said. “They’re perfectly willing for it to go on for a long time more, killing millions of innocent people in the process. They play by no rules, and they are intent on bringing down western civilization and the United States of America. So we have to understand what’s necessary and the determination we need to show to friend and foe alike that we’ll do what’s necessary to fight on any front that we have to fight on. This is a front in a much broader war.”

Thompson claimed recent reports that he believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction prior to the invasion of Iraq misrepresented what he actually said.

“I was just stating what was obvious, and that is Saddam had had them prior,” he said. “They used them against his own people, against the Kurds. And of course he had a nuclear reactor back, I believe it was in ’81, when the Israelis bombed that.”

But Thompson said that doesn’t mean Saddam wasn’t a threat to the United States.

“In my own estimation, there’s no question that if left to his own devices he and his son would still be running that place, attacking their neighbors and murdering their own people and developing a nuclear capability–especially looking at what Iran is doing, as their next-door neighbor and long-time adversary–and the whole place would be nuclearized,” he said.

“Saudi Arabia would probably respond to that, and the other Sunni nations would respond to it, and you would have an entirely nuclearized part of the world that we don’t have now,” he said. “That would be extremely problematic for us from an oil standpoint as well as a global stability standpoint.”

Tuesday’s debate was the sixth so far for GOP presidential hopefuls but Thompson’s first. The former star of movies and television’s “Law & Order” officially entered the race just last month only to stumble on the campaign trail with a series of verbal gaffes and seeming lack of knowledge of issues.

Television pundits called it an uneven debut for Thompson, one that probably wouldn’t satisfy critics who say he is unqualified to be president but also wasn’t a disaster. Most reviews ranked former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as winners in the two-hour debate.

Going into Tuesday’s debate, a new Gallup Poll showed Giuliani as the Republican front-runner, at 32 percent, 12 points ahead of Thompson and 16 points ahead of Sen. John McCain.

Thompson started out shakily, with one answer interrupted by a noticeable pause, but during the second hour he grew more relaxed with a couple of barbs aimed at fellow front-runners Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.

After a quip by Romney: “This is a lot like ‘Law & Order.’ It has a huge cast, the series seems to go on forever, and Fred Thompson shows up at the end,” Thompson nodded and smiled, “And to think I thought I was going to be the best actor on the stage.”

Thompson skipped the fifth debate, Sept. 5, opting instead that same day to officially announce his long-anticipated candidacy on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

Viewed by some religious leaders as a possible standard-bearer for the Christian Right in the 2008 race for the GOP nomination, Thompson also skipped a Sept. 17 “value voter” debate that featured a straw poll won overwhelmingly by former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee.

Tuesday’s Gallup Poll showed Huckabee holding a 7 percent share of the Republican vote, two points behind Romney and five points ahead of Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

Though baptized as a child into the Church of Christ, Thompson no longer attends church regularly and has said he isn’t comfortable talking about his faith on the campaign stump.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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