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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