Scorecard: September 22, 2011 Republican Debate

Rick Perry, the national frontrunner for the GOP nomination, had a lousy debate performance in the last debate. So the media’s main storyline going into tonight’s debate wondered whether Governor Perry could mount a comeback, or whether another weak performance would jeopardize his place at the top.

For political geeks, this debate had two other storylines. First, would former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman finally emerge as a credible alternative? And second, would the sudden re-appearance of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson (who was banned from the past several debates due to low poll numbers) change anything?

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


MITT ROMNEY (1st Place, Grade: A)

Gov. Romney’s growth as a candidate since 2008 is impressive. He appears strong, confident, and almost completely nonplussed by attacks from his opponents.

Great media spokespersons know how to answer questions with a clear, definitive answer before circling back to add additional context – Mr. Romney does that like a pro. Mr. Romney is also becoming more skilled at delivering a rhetorical punch, effectively knocking his main opponent, Rick Perry. He deftly waved off one attack from Rick Perry with a dismissive (and effective) “nice try.”

Mr. Romney answers the questions he wants to and avoids questions he doesn’t want to answer. For example, he evaded answering what his definition of “wealthy” is. That might work for now, but at some point, he’s going to have to answer those types of questions with greater detail.

NEWT GINGRICH (2nd Place, Grade: B+)

Once again, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich turned in a solid performance tonight. He appears overly-strident at times, and would benefit from using his humor more often to smooth out his rough edges.

Mr. Gingrich is one of the best candidates at delivering a memorable sound bite, such as this one: “A leader [Ronald Reagan] came along. He said when your brother-in law is unemployed, it’s a recession. When you’re unemployed, it’s a depression. When Jimmy Carter is unemployed, it’s a recovery. Nothing will turn America around more than election night when Barack Obama loses decisively.”


HERMAN CAIN (3rd Place, Grade: B)

Mr. Cain gave a steady performance tonight that demonstrated his continued growth as a candidate. He is clearly a sentimental favorite, a candidate whose obvious charisma has led to a high favorability ranking among Republicans. He’s amiable, his message is aligned with much of the public, and he radiates a sense of optimism.

Like Mr. Gingrich, he’s also gifted at delivering a witty sound bite, such as this one: “Ronald Reagan once said we are a shining city on a hill. We slid down the side of the hill. Americans want somebody who’s going to lead them back to the top of that hill.”

JON HUNTSMAN (4th Place, Grade: C+)

Gov. Huntsman had one of his steadiest performances tonight – he was much more disciplined and didn’t attempt any lame Kurt Cobain jokes tonight. His answers were serious, and he didn’t hesitate to defend his views — even those that were unpopular with the audience in the auditorium.

Mr. Huntsman doesn’t bring nearly enough joy to the debate. Americans tend to elect the happier warrior – Ronald Reagan was a happier warrior than Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton was a happier warrior than George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole, George W. Bush was a happier warrior than Al Gore and John Kerry, and Barack Obama was a happier warrior than John McCain. That trend doesn’t bode well for Mr. Huntsman.

RICK PERRY (5th Place, tie, Grade: C)

Gov. Perry’s debate performance was better tonight, but not because he performed particularly well – he just performed less badly.

Mr. Perry’s halting, hesitating delivery makes him look lost and unsure. He has an unseemly habit of refusing eye contact with the person he’s attacking or the person who’s attacking him – instead, he looks down or straight ahead, his face looking strained the entire time.

It wasn’t all bad for Mr. Perry. After one particularly effective jab about Mitt Romney editing out a line about “RomneyCare” in the soft cover version of his book, Perry joked that the back and forth between the two men was like a game of badminton. It was a well-timed quip that helped soften Mr. Perry, who more frequently uses brass knuckles.

He’s defiant when defending even unpopular policies among the Republican base, such as his support for a statewide mandate to administer the HPV vaccine. That defiance will likely read as strength to a lot of voters, including those who disagree with him on a given issue.

RICK SANTORUM (5th Place, tie, Grade: C)

Like some of his peers, Sen. Santorum appears not only joyless, but permanently annoyed. He landed a few effective punches against Gov. Perry on immigration and health care, but hasn’t done anything to elevate his candidacy out of the middle of the pack. On the plus side, he’s energetic and passionate, and clearly believes in his message. But at this point, he’s running for a cabinet post, an ambassadorship, or higher speaking fees.


MICHELE BACHMANN (7th Place, Grade: C-)

The only headline with Rep. Bachmann from this debate is that there is no headline. She has become almost irrelevant, the invisible candidate who has gotten weaker in almost every debate.

It’s barely worth pointing out, but Ms. Bachmann made yet another misstatement tonight in saying that President Obama is the least popular president in modern history. According to Gallup, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and several others have all polled lower at some point in the presidencies.

GARY JOHNSON (8th Place, Grade: D+)

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson wasn’t allowed in the past several debates due to his low poll numbers – and his lack of debate experience showed tonight. Throughout most of the debate, Mr. Johnson looked nervous and uncomfortable. He has a nervous tic of moving his left thumb repeatedly while he speaks, a distraction that reinforces his lack of ease.

Toward the end of the night, he demonstrated one singular moment of joy on the stage when he quipped: “My next door neighbors’ two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this president.” But that moment didn’t make up for his overall lackluster performance.

Because this is a media training blog
, it’s worth pointing out that he wore a tie with thin stripes, which led to a distracting shimmer effect on television. In order to avoid the shimmer effect, ties should be solid or feature broad stripes.

RON PAUL (9th Place, Grade: D)

Since 1980, there have been eight presidential elections. In all eight of them, the more charismatic candidate won (unless you considered Bob Dole more charismatic than Bill Clinton).

Inevitably, I’m going to hear from fans of Dr. Paul who criticize me for a superficial analysis of his delivery instead of focusing on his content. But voters don’t cast their votes based solely on their content; personal qualities loom large in the voting booth. Dr. Paul may be a fan favorite, but he comes across as a crank. He’s joyless – and that’s a problem for him, since few joyless candidates have won the presidency since the invention of television.

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