Scorecard: November 9, 2011 Republican Debate

Thanks to Rick Perry, no one will be talking about Herman Cain’s sexual harassment allegations tomorrow.

Gov. Perry’s humiliating, 45-second-long gaffe will surely be the main headline tomorrow (the video of his painful brain freeze appears below). But how did the other seven candidates do?

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


HERMAN CAIN (1st Place, Grade: A-)

With another strong performance, Mr. Cain continues to show why he has soared to the top of the pack. When asked about allegations of sexual harassment, he delivered a short, media-friendly sound bite:

“The American people deserve better than someone being in tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations.”

Mr. Cain also demonstrated why he was an effective marketer, not only continuing to brand “9-9-9,” but seemingly inventing the phrase “sneak a-taxes” – which I suspect we’ll be hearing again.

His answer regarding Italy’s debt crisis exposed gaps in his knowledge, which could hurt him as he moves closer to the nation’s first votes being cast in January.

Plus, I question his decision to label Nancy Pelosi, “Princess Nancy” during this debate, as it’s probably not the right time to give critics any ammunition to label him a misogynist. Despite the downsides, it was an overall impressive performance.

MITT ROMNEY (2nd Place, Grade: B+)

Gov. Romney’s strategy seems to be to try to win the nomination by remaining steady while other candidates self-immolate, rather than to win by being loved by voters. That strategy may work for him.

Mr. Romney was steady again tonight, although he’s increasingly looking annoyed when answering questions. One humorous (if not telling) moment occurred when Mr. Romney tried to reverse his image as a flip-flopper:

“I think people understand that I’m a man of steadiness and constancy. I don’t think you’re going to find someone who has more of those attributes than I do. I’ve been married to the same woman for 25 – excuse me, I’ll get in trouble – for 42 years.”

As someone on my Twitter feed recently said, Mr. Romney has a glass jaw, but his opponents have yet to find a way to break it. That must say something about his debating skills.

NEWT GINGRICH (3rd Place, tie, Grade: B)

Speaker Gingrich showed his wit time and time again tonight, most notably when moderator John Harwood tried to get him with a “gotcha” question:

John Harwood: “Your firm was paid $300,000 by Freddie Mac in 2006. What did you do for that money?”

Newt Gingrich: “I offered them advice on precisely what they didn’t do.”

Mr. Gingrich is moving up in the polls (perhaps because the other conservative choices – Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have flamed out, while Herman Cain is busy fighting tough allegations). It’s understandable why voters are attracted to him – he’s witty, knowledgeable, and tough.

But I continue to question his lack of optimism and his discipline. Why waste several seconds fighting the moderators that he only has 30 seconds to answer a question? He agreed to the rules prior to the debate, and his reaction to the rules being enforced was a waste of valuable airtime. It’s okay to attack the media, but he should pick his moments more carefully.

Little has changed. In August 2010, I wrote on this blog:

“If Mr. Gingrich can find a way to remain stubbornly on message (and can begin to exude some optimism), he can become a viable contender. But until he demonstrates he can do so, he is not likely to win a general election, even against an unpopular president.”

MICHELE BACHMANN (3rd Place, tie, Grade: B)

Ms. Bachmann had one of her strongest performances since her first debate tonight. She began by knocking a question about tax rates out of the park, and made a compelling case that every American should pay at least something in federal taxes, even if it’s just $10.

Ms. Bachmann’s solid performance tonight will likely not prop up her flagging campaign, but it might help keep her supporters from moving to a different candidate…for now.


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

We know something about the type of person the American people elect. Since the beginning of the 24/7 media age in 1980, the more charismatic candidate has won every general election. Rep. Paul is not that candidate.

Many of this blog’s readers are fans of Dr. Paul, and my analysis is not a referendum on Dr. Paul’s ideas. But style points matter to the electorate, and Dr. Paul too often looks more like a scolding nag than a presidential figure. He’s consistent and steady, but isn’t breaking through to a large-enough base to earn the nomination.

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

You know that old saw that voters tend to vote for the candidate they’d most like to drink a beer with? It’s hard to see many people choosing Sen. Santorum as their drinking buddy.

Mr. Santorum looks sour. He spends way too much time talking about his 1990s legislative record instead of focusing like a laser on what he would do if elected. Mr. Santorum has run a campaign without any embarrassing headlines – but unfortunately for him, also one without any headlines at all. He failed to distinguish himself any further tonight, and will almost certainly remain in the “also-ran” category.

Despite that, I’m still giving him a “C” because he’s passionate and clearly believes in his positions. He deserves some credit for that authenticity.

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

If you ask the average American to list the people running for President, I’m betting Gov. Huntsman shows up as little more than an asterisk on the list. Despite national exposure in half a dozen debates, he’s barely made a dent.

He’s trying to run as an intellectual (tonight, he used words and phrases including, “the metastasis effect,” “yield curve,” and “efficacious.” I’m all for big words, but just ask Al Gore and John Kerry how well their intellectualism worked for them.

I’m convinced that Mr. Huntsman is no longer running for President, but rather to
boost his chances of a high-profile job post-candidacy. He may be a smart and likeable fella, but it’s hard to see how he’s going to be the Republican nominee.

RICK PERRY (8th Place, Grade: F)

In politics, image is (almost) everything. When Gov. Perry said he wanted to eliminate three government agencies and tried to list them, he couldn’t come up with the third agency. Instead of gracefully moving on, he continued trying to think of the third agency – for almost 45 painful seconds.

With his bumbling answer, Mr. Perry reinforced the now almost irreversible perception that he is not ready for prime time. That indelible moment will linger, and will likely doom his campaign.

It’s too bad. Other than that answer, Mr. Perry finally got his tone right and was steadier in this debate than in any of the earlier ones. But it won’t matter. Here’s the moment everyone will be talking about tomorrow:

What should Mr. Perry have done? As any media trainer would tell you, he should have transitioned – or “bridged” – to safer ground. For example, he could have said,

“You know, I’m having a brain freeze on that third agency, but let me tell you why it’s so important that we make these types of cuts. We need to do that because…”

Instead, Mr. Perry chose to wallow in his mistake with a “deer in headlights” expression not seen in such a high-profile debate since Arizona Governor Jan Brewer committed a similar gaffe in her 2010 gubernatorial 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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