Scorecard: December 15, 2011 Republican Debate

Just two months ago, a Newt Gingrich comeback seemed as unlikely as a comeback for other 1990s superstars, such as Color Me Badd, flannel shirts, and that Susan Powter “Stop The Insanity!” lady.

But in tonight’s debate, the former House Speaker entered as the clear favorite in national polling. Did anything happen tonight to threaten his lead?

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


MITT ROMNEY (1st Place, Grade: A-)

Mitt Romney was on his game tonight.

His game plan was clear: He’d be the rational, level-headed one, serving as a nice contrast with Newt Gingrich, who Romney’s campaign accuses of being “zany” and irresponsible. He succeeded.

Gov. Romney  focused his attacks on President Obama – not his opponents – which is good, since he looks unappealing and peevish when he attacks on the debate stage. He looked less defensive in his responses to Chris Wallace’s tough questions than Gingrich did when facing similar aggressive questioning.

Mr. Romney had a terrific line regarding the downed drone in Iran. Reacting to President Obama requesting that Iran return the drone, Gov. Romney caustically said that the President’s response amounting to having a foreign policy of “pretty please?”

Iowa is very much up in the air, but Mr. Romney did a lot to help his chances tonight.

RICK SANTORUM (2nd Place, tied, Grade: B+)

Sen. Santorum had a good night, successfully conveying a single message: Been there, done that.

By using that response, Mr. Santorum successfully whacked all of his opponents. He was able to use that refrain to whack those competitors who have changed their positions over time, and to whack those who he accused of not being sufficiently conservative.

If any of the candidates in the bottom tier move up over the next three weeks, I’m guessing it’ll be Santorum.

RON PAUL (2nd Place, tied, Grade: B+)

Rep. Paul also had a good night tonight. He was more animated than he has been in past debates, even displaying a little humor over his favorite Supreme Court justice (“All of them are good and all of them are bad,” he said.) He made Rep. Bachman look like a naif after a particularly heated exchange over Iran, angrily wagging his pen as he pressed his case.

It’s easy to see why so many Americans have been attracted to his campaign; no candidate on either side of the aisle has been as ideologically consistent.

Still, it’s important to point out that Americans always elect the more optimistic candidate (they’ve done so since the beginning of the 24/7 media age in 1980), and Dr. Paul conveys little optimism. He’d do himself a favor by wrapping his principled arguments in a “can do” spirit that offers fewer strident lectures along the way.


MICHELE BACHMANN (4th Place, Grade: C+)

Rep. Bachmann launched a successful attack against Speaker Gingrich on Freddie Mac tonight, but was less successful when going after Ron Paul on Iraq. The bigger problem for her is that she did nothing to change the dynamic of her campaign. After tonight, it’s tough to see how she finishes in the top three in Iowa, which would effectively end her campaign.

NEWT GINGRICH (5th Place, Grade: C)

Speaker Gingrich had a lousy first half tonight, which may hurt his already slipping poll numbers in Iowa.

When his opponents predictably attacked him, he looked defensive and his face tightened. Given that he knew the attacks were coming, I was surprised he didn’t have a witty rejoinder at the ready – where was the debate wit that launched him into the top tier in the first place?

He used the language of denial – a political “no-no” – by saying, “I have never once changed my positions due to any type of payment.” Count on that sound bite being played repeatedly on tomorrow’s cable news programs. He also allowed himself to be thrust into the role of being a defender of big government. Plus, did we really need a history lesson dating back to 1802?

Mr. Gingrich had his moments, such as when he said, “I get accused of using language that’s too strong, so I’ve been up here editing. I don’t want to be accused of being ‘zany.’” That ‘zany’ line was a sly allusion to an ad being run against him by the Romney campaign.


RICK PERRY (6th Place, Grade: C-)

Listening to Rick Perry speak is kind of like looking at a randomly assorted collection of refrigerator word magnets. His awkward cadence, bordering on manic at times, is like a high-wire act – you know he could slip at any moment (and he often does).

His attempt to relate himself to NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, a darling of conservatives, was a good idea on paper. But in real-life, it’s a talking point that has a high degree of difficulty, and Gov. Perry looked foolish trying to pull it off.

It wasn’t all bad for Perry. His pitch for a “part-time Congress” is the most likely idea to stick since “9-9-9,” and he delivered a strong answer on immigration. All in all, though, not enough to significantly alter his electoral odds.

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

We learned something new in this debate: Jon Huntsman’s favorite curse word is “screwed.”

He used the word no fewer than three times: “We are getting screwed as Americans;” “President Obama “screwed up” the economy;” and our “visa system is so screwed up in this nation.”

For good measure, he threw in a rhetorical question that asked “how stupid are we,” referenced Donald Trump, and alluded to George Kennan, the barely remembered diplomat best remembered as the “father of containment.”

Gov. Huntsman is screwed. His effort to use stronger language that will resonate deeply with the American people isn’t natural for him, making him look desperate. And what was with him looking at his notes as he was speaking throughout the debate? If you can’t deliver an answer without a crutch at this point, you’re, well, screwed.

COMMENTS? 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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