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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Mitt Romney should run on his own merit,not attacting
our current president.
I GAVE HIM A ZERO FOR HIS ACTIONS !
I’m sick and tired of hearing people say some candidate needs “more fire in their belly” or “more soaring and optimistic rhetoric.” It’s akin to that bimbo in New Hampshire that decided not to vote for Paul because the media overcrowded a diner and she wasn’t able to shake his hand.
I feel instead, the conversation should be on how primary voters should exercise some critical thinking instead of going for someone because they think he’d be good to have a beer with (the decider) or someone with “soaring and optimistic rhetoric” (Mr. Hope and Change).
Like you, I wish voters all made decisions for purely rational reasons. My review is based on the way Americans predictably cast their votes, not on the way things should be.
Since the beginning of the 24/7 media age, voters have consistently chosen presidents who meet seven criteria. You can see them here: https://www.throughlinegroup.com/index.php/2010/12/15/2012-election-preview-final-candidate-rankings/.
Thanks for reading and commenting,
I hear you Brad. Thanks for the response. I concede a plurality of arenas in the lives of every day people are also affected by presentation in general, and that, at times, overshadows content of ideas or character.
I always enjoy your reviews, Brad. But you have me hopping mad this time. Two points:
1. Why in the world would you reference Dan Savage? Savage brags about deliberately spreading disease! A great role model for the gay community. Savage has been convicted of a election-related crime. Again, great choice to reference in regard to an election candidate. Seriously, your credibility is at risk referencing Savage in any terms other than disdain and disgust.
2. When the moderator tried to skip Ron Paul on the issue of life, the audience spontaneously started clamoring “Ron Paul” because they wanted to hear his answer! Nothing like that has happened in any of the previous debates for any other candidate. It suggests that the audience was listening to Dr. Paul’s answers. Yes, Brad, you are right that Dr. Paul is not a flashy speaker. But Dr. Paul had a good night as evidenced by the audience demanding he be given equal time to the others.
Better candidates? How ’bout better moderators?
Thank you, Brad, for your blog.
Sorry I had you hopping mad – My hope for my reviews is that they illuminate, not infuriate (does that sound like a Jesse Jackson line, or what?)
My reference to Dan Savage was in no way meant to cast judgment on him (pro or con), but rather to point out that even Sen. Santorum’s worst enemies would have to concede that he’s sincere in his beliefs. I think that point is rather clear in context, and it’s a compliment to Sen. Santorum.
You’re right that the audience booed when Dr. Paul didn’t get a chance to speak, but I don’t believe that moment meant a lot. The Republican debate audiences in 2008 and 2012 have been packed with enthusiastic Ron Paul fans, but that enthusiasm isn’t proportional to the amount of support he earns at polling places. If you looked only at debate audiences and Fox News’ online polls, you’d conclude that Rep. Paul was winning in a landslide, but he will probably fail to win a single state. There’s no doubt that Ron Paul’s fans are the most passionate about their candidate. The problem for him is that there just aren’t enough of them.
I truly do appreciate your loyal readership, even if we don’t always see eye-to-eye.
‘m tired of it too, Ben. I don’t disagree with your assessment, Brad, that that’s how voters vote. It’s just frustrating. And it doesn’t help that these non-issue issues, if you will, are a large part of how the media judges candidates too. If you don’t watch the debates yourself, you don’t learn anything substantive from the media’s coverage after the fact.
I hear you and Ben both. Believe me, after writing about 15+ debates, I’m tired of hearing the same tired lines over and over again. They’re neither illuminating nor substantive.
I’d love a debate in which the candidates had to debate, say, Medicare Part B for 90 minutes. It would attract about 12 viewers, but at least we’d have a real sense of how they’re going to curb a significant chunk of entitlement spending. Instead, we get the usual, “This candidate said this about you. Would you respond?” questions from moderators.
Alright, enough ranting from me tonight. Thanks for your comment.
Brad, Thanks for your response. To make sure I’m clear, I didn’t mean to suggest that I disagreed with your assessment of the debate or how you did it. I think the way you review candidates is appropriate for your specialty–and interesting because of your expertise. Ben just touched an important point with me, so I was commenting about the media overall–especially television media.
Anyway, interesting discussion–and I finally realized why I so often disagree with–and am surprised by–the media’s claims of who won the debates! It’s because I’m focused on what the candidates say, and the media is so often focused more on how they say it. Light bulb!
By the way, I love your idea of debating one issue for 90 minutes! That would be awesome! I wonder how many people would actually watch. Maybe we’d be surprised. Eh, probably not. 😉
No worries! I took your comment as you intended it. And even if you didn’t, I enjoy some thoughtful disagreement on the blog!
Along these lines, you might be interested in this story I posted last week about the media’s superficiality: https://www.throughlinegroup.com/index.php/2012/01/12/the-news-media-are-more-superficial-than-ever-right/.
I don’t know or care what Savage may think about Santorum. However, you are wrong that his sincerity cannot be questioned. Many question it.
Like I tell everyone who will listen, “Santorum isn’t a conservative, he just plays one on t.v.” He says he is pro-life, but endorses a pro-abortion candidate (Specter) over a pro-life candidate (Toomey). He endorses pro-abortion Specter for President. He votes to fund Planned Parenthood.
He says he is for less government, but votes to double the size of the Dept. of Education, votes to have the national government subsidize prescription drugs, etc.
He says he’s for right-to-work, but voted against it.
It goes on and on. I know your blog is focused on communication, but I thought you should know that informed people aren’t buying Santorum’s pious baloney.
For the future of our nation, we need Mitt Romney. His record of success, leadership, business expertise, and ethics out shine that of the other candidates.
Not sure what any of that has to do with communications, but I’ll post your off-topic comment anyway.