Scorecard: January 7, 2012 Republican Debate
New Hampshire voters go to the polls on Tuesday to cast their votes for Republican nominee.
The race in New Hampshire appears to be settled – hometown favorite Mitt Romney is way ahead in almost every poll. So the question coming into tonight’s debate was this: Could anybody else position themselves to become Mr. Romney’s main competition moving forward?
Here are tonight’s grades in order of best to worst:
THE TOP TIER
MITT ROMNEY (1st Place, Grade: A)
The status quo helps only one candidate in this race: Mitt Romney. And since nothing happened to threaten the status quo, Gov. Romney stands alone in the top tier tonight.
Mr. Romney has clearly pivoted to becoming a general election candidate, brushing his fellow competitors aside with the kind of ease Mike Tyson once used to dispatch Michael Spinks. He competently deflected questions about whether he was responsible for downsizing thousands of employees as part of Bain Capital, leaving his glass jaw completely intact.
Mr. Romney bumbled an answer regarding the rights of states to ban contraception. Although that error will likely get some ink in tomorrow’s papers, it’s not a major gaffe that does anything to challenge Mr. Romney’s dominance in the race.
MIDDLE OF THE PACK
RICK SANTORUM (2nd Place, Grade: B)
This race has three candidates vying to become the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney: Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry. Of the three, Santorum had the best night.
He focused on the middle class, aligning his message with their struggles. Of course, he would disagree with my analysis – he pointed out that there is no such thing as a middle “class” in America, just middle-income people. It’s a curious distinction that may lead to more than a few unfavorable opponent ads.
Mr. Santorum displayed his mastery of state privacy laws when asked about the contraceptive case Romney fumbled. He also got off a good line when Ron Paul’s microphone started feeding back the very moment he began attacking Santorum (“They caught you not telling the truth, Ron.”).
Still, Sen. Santorum continues to look too defensive when attacked. If he’s going to become a credible alternative to Mitt Romney, he needs to focus on appearing more presidential and less peevish. One way to do that is to stop getting so excited when defending his record – when he does, his voice rises and his pace quickens. He could appear more in control if he did the opposite – slowed down and spoke in a stronger and more controlled – but not louder – voice.
NEWT GINGRICH (3rd Place, Grade: C+)
Talk about anticlimactic.
After his fourth place finish in Iowa on Tuesday night, Speaker Gingrich pledged to attack Mr. Romney’s record. Before the debate, his spokesman, R.C. Hammond, said: “It’s fight night. We’re excited.”
If this was a fight, it was more the kind that ends up with the two combatants dating. One of the most important jobs for debate nights happens before the debate, when the candidates attempt to manage expectations. On that count, Mr. Gingrich vastly oversold and under-delivered. It’s almost as if he decided to hold his fire in the hopes that he can score a cabinet position in a Romney administration.
Mr. Gingrich would have ranked lower, but for a few good attack lines. He pretended to defend President Obama by saying, “I’m sure in his desperate efforts to create a radical, European socialist model [he] is sincere.” And values voters will appreciate, “There’s a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is concern of the other side, and none of it gets covered by the news media.”
All in all, a muted performance and blown opportunity.
TRAILING THE FIELD
JON HUNTSMAN (4th Place, Grade: C)
Jon Huntsman will be remembered for only one moment in this debate: The one when he suddenly decided to attack Mitt Romney – in Mandarin.
That’s right, in what must be a first in presidential elections, Mr. Huntsman used the Chinese dialect to attack Mr. Romney’s lack of understanding of China.
Beyond that, Gov. Huntsman speaks too elliptically, making his points in tentative and diplomatic language missing any fine edge. In his attempt to sound like the “reasonable” guy, he instead comes across as soporific – and a bit weird (see speaking in Mandarin tonight, earlier Kurt Cobain joke).
It’s too bad. Mr. Huntsman has the qualities that could have allowed him to position himself as the other “adult” in the room, alongside Mitt Romney, but he was never able to effectively deploy them.
Mr. Huntsman has one last shot – tomorrow morning’s debate. I suspect it won’t matter, and that his candidacy will end before he ever makes it to South Carolina.
RON PAUL (5th Place, Grade: C-)
Rep. Paul spent most of his evening going after Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, a clear strategic choice to try to knock them both out and become Mr. Romney’s sole competitor.
I’ve never seen Ron Paul more angered, to the point of trembling, when he discussed “chicken hawks,” or legislators who send kids off to war but who didn’t serve when called. Mr. Paul had a shocking moment when he said of Newt Gingrich:
“I think people who don’t serve when they could…and they get deferments…they have not right to send our kids off to war…I’m trying to stop the wars, but at least I went when they called me up.”
Unfortunately for Dr. Paul, Americans have not elected an “angry” candidate since the beginning of the 24/7 media age. His flash of anger will likely be greeted with enthusiasm by his considerable base of supporters, but it’s hard to see how it helps him expand his base before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
Dr. Paul is better when he’s in the role of a passionate ideologue with a cause. But he’s a lousy attack dog, appearing as unlikeable, cranky, and yes – even mean – as Bob Dole was back in 1996.
RICK PERRY (6th Place, Grade: D)
Remember last week when Gov. Perry said he was going back to Texas to re-assess his candidacy? He should have stayed home. It’s not that he had a bad night tonight. It’s that he was thoroughly irrelevant.
Well, almost irrelevant. He did have one memorable moment, when he said America should send troops back into Iraq. That’ll make a few headlines, but not ones that will help him break out of single digits.
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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Brad – another great analysis. I have to wonder though if these debates really mean anything anymore. I think we could probably find more substance in a ShamWow infomercial.
Thanks, Dave. After 15 debates, I might actually enjoy reviewing a ShamWow informercial more!
I normally agree with your review; especially, since it focuses on presentation, not political validity. However, the debate review seems to do just that.
I think Ron Paul had a great night. Yes, he can come off as a crank. However, he put Gingrich in his place.
Impact? Your analysis may not be far off the mark in terms of impact. At this point, I think people are watching the debates to reinforce their views, rather than make up their mind.
What amazes me is how Santorum brushes off all his votes for more and bigger government, with “I had to vote that way.” You aren’t a conservative when you endorse pro-abortion Arlen Specter for US Senator over pro-life candidate Pat Toomey; endorse Specter for president; vote 8 times to raise the debt ceiling; vote to expand the Dept. of Education; vote to expand Medicare benefits; vote against right to work; etc. There isn’t enough band width to properly document this guy’s phoney-ness. Santorum is not a conservative, he just plays one on t.v.
Thank you for your comment and for your continued readership. I went back and looked at the review, and am a bit confused where you think my debate analysis slipped into my personal political opinion. Can you share a bit more about where you think that happened?
Thanks again, and please don’t be a stranger.
Your grades this time seem to focus more on voters’ perceptions of the candidates and not so much on how the candidates did in the debate; e.g., in terms of communication of ideas, gaffes, inappropriate demeanor, etc.
Maybe it’s just me. I think your review of the more recent debate (on Sun. morn, 1/8/12) is more properly focused on the media aspects.
Love your blog!
Thanks very much for your clarification. I’m glad that it’s not any personal political leanings shining through, but rather my take on the voters’ perceptions of the candidates.
My reviews do cover what I perceive to be voter perceptions, but they’re hopefully not random. Take a look at this press release from December 2010, specifically the seven bullets toward the bottom: https://www.throughlinegroup.com/index.php/2010/12/15/2012-election-preview-final-candidate-rankings/. My hope is to view the candidates through the prism of those seven points, and you’re right that that may come across less as straightforward communication, and more as political strategy, which relies heavily on communication.
Does that help explain the basis of my debate scorecards a little better?
Thanks again. I truly appreciate you reading the blog, and never mind some thoughtful dialogue!
As a independent 69 year old retired former Massachusetts resident now retired in Georgia eith expensive internationals business experience and hands-on insight on Ronmey’s Bain days, I fully agree with your assessment of the Sat night debate. I do however agree with David’s comment that those watching the debate ( and not football ) are moreso watching to reinforce their views rather than make up their mind which is my case.
Perry’ failure to use the window of opportunity to tallk about the Trans-Texas Exprees 1000 mile private road being built accross Texas as a cost free answer to improving Infracture, destroyed the last of his candidacy in my eyes.