Scorecard: Tonight’s 2012 Republican Debate


Tonight’s Republican debate, the first of the 2012 presidential race, officially marked the beginning of next year’s presidential election. Unofficially, it marked the beginning of spring training.

The biggest headline from tonight’s debate had less to do with the candidates who showed up than the candidates who didn’t. Mitt Romney was nowhere to be found. Mike Huckabee was absent. So were Newt Gingrich, Mitch Daniels, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, and Donald Trump.

Of the five Republicans taking the stage tonight, only one (Tim Pawlenty) is viewed as a viable contender for the GOP nomination. But this post won’t focus on their odds of winning the nomination; rather, it will focus on their skills as communicators.

Here are their grades for tonight’s debate, from best to worst:


Who He Is: Pawlenty, also known as “T-Paw,” was governor of Minnesota from 2003-2011.

How He Did: Pawlenty managed to throw red meat to the Republican base while not saying anything controversial enough to offend independents. He made no unforced errors, allowing him to remain near the top of this B-list.  Pawlenty wasted his first 30 seconds thanking everyone from the Fox News Channel to Greenville, SC. In doing so, he looked like a typical, uninspiring, boring politician.

He wisely deflected when given an opportunity to attack fellow candidate Mitt Romney, preventing news organizations from reporting a “Pawlenty vs. Romney” story line. His crowd-pleasing language regarding President Obama’s health care plan was a winner: “[Democrats] jammed down our throats one of the most partisan pieces of legislation in our country.”

When booed by his audience about his previous support for cap and trade, he wisely made no excuses and diffused the issue early in the campaign cycle by saying:

“We’re going to have a few clunkers in your record, we all do. And that’s one of mine – I just admit it. I don’t try to duck it, bob it, weave it, try to explain it away. I’m just telling ya I made a mistake. I’m looking the American people in the eye and telling them I made a mistake.”

Pawlenty looks a bit uneasy in his own skin. His awkward gestures are reminiscent of a combination of Al Gore and Will Forte’s fictional Saturday Night Live candidate Tim Calhoun.

Grade: B



Who He Is: Cain is the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, and a former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

How He Did: Cain refused to describe his policy on Afghanistan, saying he didn’t have access to “confidential” information. He also refused to describe his views on Syria and Libya, again retreating to his talking points about the need to clearly define a military strategy.

Cain deserves credit for delivering numerous media-friendly sound bites.

When asked about his lack of government experience, Cain earned a laugh by saying:

“I’m proud of the fact, quite frankly, that I haven’t held public office before…most of the people that are in elected office in Washington, DC., they have held public office before. How’s that working for ya?”

When asked about President Obama’s decision to kill Osama Bin Laden, Cain said: “One right decision doth not a great president make.”

When asked why he no longer supports Mitt Romney, he said: “I’m running now rather than supporting Mr. Romney because he did not win, so I’m going to try my time.”

I’m reluctant to say that Cain occupies the same role in this debate as Al Sharpton did the Democratic debates in 2008, because readers may assume I’m making a comparison based on race. I’m not. Rather, I’m comparing both men’s ability to elicit laughter from audiences with witty, media-friendly one-liners. But he’s not running for comedian-in-chief, and it’s tough to see him moving beyond the second tier of candidates.

Grade: B-



Who He Is: First elected to the House of Representatives in 1976, Dr. Paul has earned the moniker “Dr. No” for his refusal to vote for most legislation that would expand government. He is a libertarian popular with the Ayn Rand crowd.

How He Did: Paul wins points for his authenticity and passion. It’s tough to imagine anybody who regards him as a phony. Although he got off a few good lines, he too often resorted to using more professorial language. For example, his attacks on the Federal Reserve play well to his fans, but leaves most of the country cold.

To his credit, Paul managed a presidential debate first – he earned the approval of a South Carolina crowd while defending the legalization of heroin. But if that’s his high point, he’s in trouble.

Grade: C



Who He Is: A former two-term Senator from Pennsylvania who was voted out of office in 2006 by an embarrassing 17-point margin.

How He Did: If voters elected the most strident candidate, Santorum would win. Of course, they don’t. Otherwise, we’d be in the second term of President Howard Dean.

Santorum’s facial gestures come across as annoyed, defensive and angry, and he doesn’t radiate any of the optimism voters consistently opt for in their presidential candidates.

He fell into the trap of using the language of denial when he proclaimed, “I’m not anti-Islam.” In so doing, he gave the media a perfect four word sound bite – one that does him few favors. He notably received no applause when he declared repealing ObamaCare the most important issue facing this nation.

Grade: D



Who He Is: The former two-term New Mexico governor is also a libertarian known for his socially  progressive and economically conservative views.

How He Did: Johnson seems like a nice guy, and would be fun to share a bong hit with. But he wouldn’t know a good sound bite if it punched him in the nose — he’s all facts, no inspiration. At one point, Johnson had to remind the moderators he was still there. When called on next, he offered a wonky, jargon-filled, and uninspiring lecture on Medicare.

Instead of deflecting an idiotic question about “which reality television show” he would like to be a part of, he painfully attempted to answer it. He should have rejected the stupid question and transitioned to something of substance instead.

Finally, what was with his thumbs? Throughout the debate, they were involuntarily dancing while he rested his hands on the lectern – an obvious sign of discomfort.

Grade: D-


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