Scorecard: January 19, 2012 Republican Debate

This might be the last debate that matters during this primary season.

South Carolina’s primary is this Saturday. If Mitt Romney wins, even Newt Gingrich admits the race will probably be over. If he doesn’t, we could be in for a long nominating fight.

So the big question coming into tonight was whether Newt Gingrich could capitalize on his well-reviewed performance in Monday night’s debate.

So, did he continue his debating success? Did Mitt Romney recover from Monday’s near-disastrous debate? And did the other two candidates do anything to change the dynamic of the race?

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

RICK SANTORUM (1st Place, Grade: A-)

Rick Santorum had his best debate tonight. It won’t be enough to help him win South Carolina (or stay in the race), but he had a great night nonetheless.

Sen. Santorum has gotten much better at hitting his opponents with a cudgel while still managing to appear humble. His attacks on Mitt Romney’s “RomneyCare” landed strongly, as did his attacks against Newt Gingrich for supporting the individual mandate.

Mr. Santorum tried to establish himself as “old reliable” while simultaneously whacking Newt Gingrich’s perceived instability by saying:

“I don’t want a nominee where I’m going to look at the newspaper and wonder what he’s going to do next….Something’s going to pop and we don’t need that in a nominee. I’m steady, I’m solid.”

Toward the end of the night, Mr. Santorum was asked what about his candidacy he would have done differently. After thinking for a moment, he said, “I wouldn’t have changed a thing.” His answer was sincere, natural, and authentic – and it stood in marked contrast to Mitt Romney’s more calculated answer.

Mr. Santorum has a lot of political enemies. But even Dan Savage would have to conclude that Mr. Santorum is sincere in his beliefs.

NEWT GINGRICH ( Place, Grade: B+)

This debate will be mostly remembered for the very first question and answer, an exchange Speaker Gingrich used to castigate CNN Host John King. When Mr. King asked Gingrich about accusations made by his second wife, who claimed Mr. Gingrich requested an open marriage before divorcing her, he lit up:

“Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary, a significant question in a presidential campaign, is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine…you and your staff chose to start this debate with that.”

Although a lot of pundits believe he won the debate with that attack, but I’m not so sure. Mr. Gingrich already has the largest discrepancy between male and female voters in South Carolina (men support him more than women). Displays of anger typically turn off female voters, so I’m less sure how this will play in South Carolina.

Did that clip earn him a standing ovation? Yes. Will the moment be talked about? You bet. Will it yield him votes? Maybe not, especially if his ex-wife appears credible on tonight’s Nightline.

Two other moments warrant comment.

First, when Rick Santorum attacked him as “too grandiose,” Mr. Gingrich embraced the language instead of fighting it by saying we “need grandiose thinking.” I have a name for what he did – “media jujitsu.” It’s a terrific debating technique of taking your opponent’s negative language and spinning it into a positive.

Second, he released his tax returns at the very beginning of the debate. That allowed the attack on Mitt Romney to stick that much more – and that topic became Mitt Romney’s worst moment of the debate.

MITT ROMNEY (3rd Place, Grade: C+)

First, the good news. Gov. Romney had a better debate tonight than he did on Monday night.

But that’s hardly enough. Mr. Romney had yet another platitude-filled performance, using the same tired lines he’s used dozens of times in his stump speeches, such as: “Obama wants an entitlement society,” Obama “takes from some, gives to others,” America is the “hope of the Earth,” “I believe in free enterprise,” “I’m going to defend capitalism,” and “I believe there’s nothing wrong with profit.”

Those hackneyed lines make him look calculated and insincere, as if he’s simply regurgitating poll-tested lines that some focus groups liked. He needs to abandon the lines that are by now more familiar than a child’s pull-string doll and develop some fresh material. Stat.

Mr. Romney’s worst moment unfathomably came when he was asked, yet again, when he planned to release his tax returns. He had to know that question was coming – yet he bumbled and stumbled through his answers, earning boos from the live audience. In the end, he said he would release this years’ tax return in April, but refused to commit to releasing earlier years, as well.

Although it won’t do much damage, Mr. Romney displayed yet another lack of self awareness when he said that he, unlike Washington insiders like Newt Gingrich, has “lived in the real streets of America.” Sure, real streets that have 11,000-square foot homes on them. He’s still trying to appear like an average Joe, and it backfires every time.

He did have a couple of good moments tonight: One when he was defending our nation’s obligation to veterans, and another when he was asked what he would have changed about his campaign. “I would have worked to get 25 more votes in Iowa, that’s for sure,” he quipped.

RON PAUL (4th Place, Grade: C)

When asked what one thing he wishes he had done differently in this campaign, Rep. Paul said he would work on the delivery of his message.

See, Ron Paul fans? You’ve attacked me for criticizing Dr. Paul’s debating skills, and even the candidate knows he needs to improve in that area!

He’s right, of course. His wonky answers live in the weeds, and he lacks any of the soaring and optimistic rhetoric that voters demand from their presidents.

That’s not to say he had a terrible night. He gave a compassionate answer about our returning veterans instead of his typical non-government rant, and had a couple of terrific quips throughout the night, including one which rightly labeled Rick Santorum “over-sensitive.”

But Dr. Paul did nothing tonight to change the dynamic of his candidacy. He appears to be running as an issues candidate, not one who has a
real chance at winning the White House.

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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