Scorecard: January 16, 2012 Republican Debate

I know, I know. The Republican race is over, so why am I still covering these debates?

Well, although Mitt Romney will probably be the Republican nominee, he hasn’t earned the nomination quite yet. And it’s important to place this nominating race in a historical context:

  • In 2008, Barack Obama was “definitely” going to be the nominee after his Iowa win – until Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary and complicated his path to the nomination for months.
  • In 1984, Walter Mondale (who eventually won the Democratic nomination), won the Iowa caucus before losing seven of the next ten primaries to Gary Hart.
  • In 1968, Ronald Reagan earned the most votes in the Republican primaries but didn’t win the most delegates, allowing Richard Nixon to become the party’s nominee.

My point? Weird things happen in politics, so it’s still just a bit too early to declare Mitt Romney the winner.

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

NEWT GINGRICH (1st Place, Grade: A)

Recent polling shows Gov. Mitt Romney pulling away in South Carolina (which votes this Saturday), with Speaker Gingrich in a strong second place.

With time running out on his chances, Mr. Gingrich made the most of tonight’s debate. He had the single most dramatic and memorable exchange of this election cycle, during which he defended his attacks on President Obama as a “food stamp president.”

The moment occurred when moderator Juan Williams accused Speaker Gingrich of racial insensitivity – but instead of backing down, Mr. Gingrich doubled down. The strength of his reply – which led to a standing ovation – evoked President Reagan’s infamous 1980 “I paid for this microphone!” moment.

Mr. Gingrich’s response gets stronger as it goes on – it’s a memorable example of political rhetoric.

Mr. Gingrich looked weak when he went after Mr. Romney on his Super PAC’s incorrect ads; Romney confronted him by asking what he could do differently, and Gingrich admitted there was nothing else Romney could do.

But that didn’t matter. Mr. Gingrich won the night in a performance that is likely to play very well with South Carolina Republicans.

RICK SANTORUM (2nd Place, Grade: B)

Sen. Santorum remains an eager and effective attack dog.

In one notable exchange tonight, he put Mitt Romney on the defensive regarding whether or not felons should be able to vote once they paid their time (Santorum said yes). Romney’s Super PAC had attacked Santorum’s views on the issue, but Santorum attacked hard, backing Romney into a corner which had him fecklessly stumbling for the right answer.

He also put Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich on the defensive about their unambitious plans to curb entitlement spending.

Unfortunately for Mr. Santorum, Speaker Gingrich emerged as the conservative star tonight, likely diminishing his shrinking chances for an unexpected South Carolina victory even further.

RICK PERRY (3rd Place, Grade: B-)

Gov. Perry earned the second most enthusiastic applause from the local crowd tonight when he proclaimed that, “South Carolina is at war with the Federal Government.” He attacked the Obama Administration for going after South Carolina on right-to-work issues, and said it had declared “war on religion.”

Mr. Perry also scored pointed when he challenged Gov. Romney to release his income taxes, saying, “We cannot fire our nominee in September. We need to know now.” Mr. Romney limply replied with a non-committal and overly-cautious “maybe.”

The problem for Rick Perry is that this relatively good performance is too little, too late. He, like Rick Santorum, suffered from being outshined by Speaker Gingrich tonight, and as a result, Perry will likely have little impact on the remainder of this nominating contest.

MITT ROMNEY (4th Place, Grade: C-)

Mitt Romney started strong tonight, deflecting a few early attacks with agility and ease. His game plan coming into the debate was clearly to appear magnanimous. But when his opponents began attacking him – and most of them did – he began to look increasingly agitated, like a man who didn’t have any place to duck.

That’s not to say he didn’t try to duck:

  • He refused to commit to releasing his tax returns, suggesting he might release them in April but that “time will tell.”
  • When confronted by Rick Santorum about his views on whether or not felons who served their time should be allowed to vote again, he stalled for time, clearly calculating what the correct answer should be.
  • When asked if he’s hunted since he famously claimed he hunted “small varmints” in 2007, he said he had recently been moose hunting. The he corrected himself and said he had been elk hunting.

Gov. Romney is still in the pole position, both in South Carolina and nationally. But just as Bill Clinton became known as “Slick Willie,” he’s at risk of becoming “Slick Mittie.”  He can’t continue answering every question by transitioning to a vague but patriotic-sounding and platitudinous talking point, and he should stop trying to “out-bellicose” Newt Gingrich – it ain’t going to happen.

Finally, he had a curious moment when he proclaimed that “McCain-Feingold is a disaster.” Funny that the legislation didn’t seem to bother him when he proudly accepted John McCain’s in-person endorsement earlier this month. Overall, a lousy performance that could hurt his vote totals on Saturday.

RON PAUL (5th Place, Grade: D+)

What happened to Ron Paul tonight?

He started the debate strong, blasting one moderator’s question by saying, “Your question suggests that you’re very confused about my position.” He continued by giving a solid answer on the difference between defense spending and military spending, offering an effective analogy that, “The embassy in Baghdad is bigger than the Vatican.”

But Dr. Paul was awful during the rest of the debate, giving long and winding answers that lacked both energy and a central thesis. Overall, a bad night that may cost him a few votes in South Carolina, and one of his worst performances of this election cycle.

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.

Did you miss the 10 worst media disasters of 2011? Click here to catch up!