Scorecard: September 7, 2011 Republican Debate

Tonight’s Republican presidential debate was the first to feature Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has rocketed to the top of several national polls.

This debate will be remembered primarily for one thing: clarifying the GOP campaign as a two-person race between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney (barring the entry of another big name candidate).

No shortage of pundits will review how well the candidates did tonight. But this scorecard is different – it’s based on seven specific communications criteria that have accurately predicted the outcomes of every general election in the 24/7 media age, which began in 1980.

Here are tonight’s grades, in order of best to worst:


RICK PERRY (First Place, tied, Grade: A-) Despite a few stumbles, Rick Perry passed his first big test tonight. He appeared amiable but tough – a trait voters have rewarded by voting in Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Gov. Perry came out of the gate strong, attacking Mitt Romney in his first few answers. He was unapologetic for his record and controversial previous statements, saying: “Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country.” He delivered a few lines passionately to the camera, speaking directly to potential voters.

Perry faltered in the homestretch, and should hope that’s not a metaphor for his campaign. He evaded some of the accusations made against him – and although it didn’t matter tonight, he’ll have to answer them eventually.

His gaffe regarding climate change and Galileo (he seemed to make the opposite point he intended by comparing the fact that Galileo was scientifically marginalized in his time, just like climate scientists are today) might be a sign of more gaffes to come. And why was Perry attacking Ron Paul? Come on, Rick Perry. Remember that in politics, you’re supposed to punch up, not down.

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MITT ROMNEY (First Place, tied, Grade: A- ) Mr. Romney appears to be positioning himself as the consensus candidate, a la John McCain and Bob Dole. His goal seems to be to become the candidate who’s not necessarily loved by his party, but is deemed to be the most “electable.”

When attacked by Mr. Perry, Gov. Romney did a nice job counterattacking, and even compared Mr. Perry unfavorably to Al Gore. Romney wisely positioned himself as a pro-Social Security candidate with Rick Perry as its enemy. But whereas Perry looked aggressive when he went on the attack, Mr. Romney looked defensive.

In basketball, the rule of thumb is that when trailing by two points with seconds remaining, the visiting team should go for the win by shooting a three pointer while the home team playing on friendly turf should just tie it up with a two-pointer and use their home team advantage in overtime. Romney’s strategy seems to be to let Rick Perry go for the risky three-pointer while he plays as the more risk-averse home team.


NEWT GINGRICH (Third Place, Grade: B-) Mr. Gingrich had some good moments with several applause lines. He once again attacked the mainstream media and tried to re-direct the moderators to cover more important ground. But he still looks angry, not inspirational – and that will almost surely prevent him from reaching the top tier.

MICHELE BACHMANN (Fourth Place, Grade: C+) Rep. Bachmann is the rapidly disappearing candidate. She became a star in the first Republican debate in May and followed it up with a narrow win in the Iowa straw poll. But Ms. Bachmann was a complete non-factor tonight. She will need a big moment (or for Rick Perry to self-immolate) to re-enter the top tier.


RON PAUL (Fifth Place, tied, Grade: C-) As usual, Ron Paul offered a strong defense of libertarianism. But he continues to take the bait on off-topic questions that aren’t at all aligned with the main concerns of the American people. Lecturing about vaccines for HPV, abolishing TSA agents, and  eliminating FEMA isn’t likely to expand his base.

HERMAN CAIN (Fifth Place, tied, Grade: C-) Mr. Cain got off a good line tonight when he said of taxes: “If 10 percent is good enough for God, nine percent should be good enough for the government.” And he tried to redirect the moderators to cover more important issues. But he’s failed to improve in these debates, and is unlikely to have a breakout moment.

RICK SANTORUM (Seventh Place, Grade: D+) Mr. Santorum is passionate, but his facial expressions make him look like he’s permanently annoyed. He still speaks in Senatorial language, getting far too in the weeds with his policy answers. Like Mr. Cain, he’s failed to improve in these debates.

JON HUNTSMAN (Eighth Place, Grade: D) Mr. Huntsman looked like he was about to have a James Stockdale moment – it wouldn’t have been surprising to hear him say: “Who am I? Why am I here?” Sure, it’s often a good idea to offer a contrast to the rest of the field, but Mr. Huntsman isn’t doing it effectively. He’s still trying to act as a diplomat for a depressed electorate that is demanding some heat. And was it really a good idea to cite a statistic from the Milken Institute, given that its founder spent two years in prison for securities fraud?

Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? Please leave your opinion in the comment section below, but remember the blog’s comment policy – no ad hominem attacks or pejorative name-calling will be posted.

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