Scorecard: September 12, 2011 Republican Debate

There are more Republican debates on television these days than re-runs of Everybody Loves Raymond.

On tonight’s episode, Rick Perry received a merciless piling on from the other candidates – and seemed to wither under the harsh scrutiny. If this were a boxing match, a charitable referee would have thrown in the towel on his behalf.

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A few “second tier” candidates threatened to break through, while others moved perilously closer to the day when they inevitably drop out.

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

Photo Credit: Getty Images


MITT ROMNEY (1st Place, Grade: A)

This was Gov. Romney’s best debate of the 2012 election cycle. He did a nice job of going on the offensive, and seemed to relish his role of attacking Gov. Perry. I’ve criticized Mr. Romney in the past for looking overly-stiff, but he’s grown into a strong contender and looked downright presidential tonight.

When asked whether Gov. Perry deserved credit for job creation in Texas, Mr. Romney quipped: “When you’re dealt four aces, that doesn’t make you a terrific poker player.”

Mr. Romney should watch his expressions when other people are speaking. When Gov. Perry speaks, he wears the condescending smirk that Al Gore reserved for George W. Bush. If Mr. Romney wins the nomination, it will be because of his perceived electability, not because he’s the most beloved candidate. Therefore, he should watch those smug personal tics that annoy the heck out of voters.

NEWT GINGRICH (2nd Place, Grade: A-)

Who knew Rep. Gingrich had it in him? He has become the best candidate in terms of throwing out memorable sound bites and base-pleasing red meat.

If Mr. Perry falters, someone else is likely to emerge to threaten Mr. Romney for the nomination – and if Mr. Gingrich continues to perform this well, he could emerge as that person. Mr. Gingrich comes across as strong and knowledgeable, but lacks the charm that has been present in every general election winner since the beginning of the 24/7 media age.


RICK SANTORUM (3rd Place, Grade: B)

Sen. Santorum raised his game tonight, and came across with credibility when attacking Gov. Perry. He seemed more animated and assertive, and appeared to believe he belonged on that stage tonight.

He spends too much time talking about his work in the 1990s, and it risks making him look like a remnant of the past. He should also stop trying to prove how much he knows – it’s impressive that he knows about the two charters of the Federal Reserve, but voters don’t always vote for the most knowledgeable candidate. Just ask President Kerry.

MICHELE BACHMANN (4th Place, Grade: B-)

Michele Bachmann needed a big night to remain a player in this debate. She was nowhere during the first half of the debate. But once she launched a successful attack against Gov. Perry’s HPV mandate, she seemed to get stronger and regain her form. Gov. Perry clearly faltered tonight. The question is whether Rep. Bachmann did enough to re-claim her perch atop the field. Odds are, she didn’t. Still, she would have ranked higher if not for a lousy first half.

RON PAUL (5th Place, Grade: C+)

Rep. Paul had one of his better, more focused debates tonight. He seemed to relish sticking the rhetorical knife in fellow Texan Rick Perry, and offered more tightly constructed answers than he has in recent debates.


HERMAN CAIN (6th Place, Grade: C)

Mr. Cain was a non-player tonight. At this point, he’s playing to raise his speaking fees, earn a lucrative contract as a Fox News pundit, or secure an ambassadorship to Chile. It’s not a good sign when your biggest applause line of the night is: “I would bring my sense of humor to the White House because America is too uptight.”

JON HUNTSMAN (7th Place, Grade: D+)

I felt a bit bad after the last debate, fearing that my “D” grade of Gov. Huntsman was a bit harsh. Then he made a Kurt Cobain joke in the opening minutes of tonight’s debate that was apropos of nothing. Then he made a weird joke about “treason” regarding Rick Perry. Then I felt better. I was right the first time. With the exception of a few good lines, Gov. Huntsman comes across as dull, uninspiring, and a bit weird. His time to break through is running low, if it’s not already completely gone.

RICK PERRY (8th Place, Grade: D)

Rick Perry had a shockingly bad debate tonight, raising the question of whether he is going to be the quick-fizzling Fred Thompson of the 2012 election cycle. His lack of debate experience showed tonight, and he had several “deer in headlights” moments.

For example, he knew he was going to be asked about a claim he made in the last debate that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme.” But even though he knew it was coming, he gave a halting response that didn’t make his position clear. He should have known an attack on his HPV vaccine mandate was coming, but offered a lame response when it came.

Gov. Perry looked defensive when attacked and appeared uncomfortably stone-faced at times. Sure, he had his moments. His bravado will appeal to many, and his ability to deliver a good sound bite is real (e.g. “People are tired of spending money we don’t have on things we don’t want.”). But Mr. Perry is suddenly a vulnerable frontrunner, and his lead as the national frontrunner is at risk after this debate.

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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