Scorecard: January 23, 2012 Republican Debate

After Newt Gingrich’s unexpected blowout in South Carolina on Saturday night, tonight’s debate promised to be a barnburner.

Instead, tonight’s debate – the 18th of this election cycle – was the most insufferably boring, and likely the least newsworthy.

Well, one thing was newsworthy. For the first time in 18 debates, NBC decided to mute the audience, ostensibly to lend much-needed gravitas to the proceedings. I appreciate their intention, which helped focus attention on the candidates instead of on audience misbehavior. But the silence managed to suck the life out of the debate – and audience members were reduced to being, as one former journalism boss once called them, “potted plants.”

This was supposed to be an exciting Republican debate in a suddenly tumultuous field. Instead, it was a tough-to-grade snoozer. How dull was it? One of the GOP frontrunners discussed the fine distinction between beet and cane sugar. Really.

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

MITT ROMNEY (1st Place, Grade: B)

Gov. Romney had a much more sure-footed performance tonight than he has in the past few debates. It’s not that he came across as particularly appealing tonight (he was far too negative for that), but he at least wasn’t particularly unappealing tonight. That’s progress.

He came out of the gate by launching a frontal assault on Newt Gingrich. About the former House Speaker, Mr. Romney reminded viewers that, “It was Republicans who replaced him in the House, voted to reprimand him.” He twice said that Mr. Gingrich resigned from Congress in disgrace, and accused him of being a lobbyist for Freddie Mac.

He was steadier tonight on the now-predictable question of releasing his tax returns, but still refuses to put out 12 years of tax returns as his father did when he was a presidential candidate in 1968. I’m not convinced that releasing two years worth of tax returns will fully put this issue to bed. Nor did his conventional talking point, “The real question is not so much my taxes, but the taxes of the American people” work. A more gifted retail politician could have finessed it better; from Romney, the line looks scripted and insincere.

Mr. Romney had at least two off-pitch moments tonight. First, he again bragged that he put Ted Kennedy into debt during his failed bid for Massachusetts in 1994: “I didn’t beat him, but he had to take out a mortgage on his house so he could beat me.”

Second, he said that illegal immigrants are, “…going to find they can’t get work here, and if people can’t get work here, they’re going to self-deport to a place they can get work.” Critics are already seizing on Mr. Romney’s awkward phrasing of “self-deport,” saying it’s a ludicrous notion that people will deport themselves. It’s an unfair interpretation of his meaning – and he’s right on the facts – but that won’t prevent from some people trying to turn it into a, “I was for it before I was against it” moment.

But the big picture tonight for Mitt Romney was generally positive. He didn’t deliver anything even remotely close to an inspiring performance – but at least he stopped the bleeding tonight.

NEWT GINGRICH (2nd Place, Grade: B-)

Speaker Gingrich clearly doesn’t do as well without an enthusiastic audience to play off of. He was oddly muted tonight, playing the role of “above it all” frontrunner and barely defending himself against Mitt Romney’s attacks. When the roles were reversed, Mr. Romney’s failure to strongly defend himself against Gingrich’s attacks didn’t work so well, so it’s curious why Mr. Gingrich would adopt the same strategy in reverse.

To the degree Mr. Gingrich launched any “attacks,’” they were meek. Alluding to Mr. Romney’s low tax rate, Gingrich said that he was prepared to call his tax plan the “Mitt Romney Flat Tax,” since he proposed to bring all Americans down to Romney’s tax rate.

He also defended himself badly against charges that he accepted $1.6 million from the unpopular housing lender Freddie Mac. At one point, he turned to Mr. Romney and challenged whether any of the money he had earned with Bain Capital was from the government. Romney said “no,” and Gingrich didn’t follow up. A candidate should know better than to ask a question to which he doesn’t know the answer and can’t follow-up upon.

His strongest moment came when, after being scolded by Romney for accepting money from Freddie Mac, Gingrich asked Romney how much money he made with Bain Capital. Romney seemed genuinely surprised by the question, stumbling a bit before saying he had earned a “substantial” amount.

In the end, he didn’t do much to hurt himself, and Mr. Romney’s punches didn’t land hard enough to change the state of the race. Still, I’m not sure Mr. Gingrich can afford to be so laid back in Thursday’s debate.

RICK SANTORUM (3rd Place, Grade: C)

Rick Santorum is languishing toward the back of the pack with no discernible path to the nomination. He did nothing tonight to change that.

Although Mr. Santorum did nothing wrong tonight, he didn’t do anything to stand out. And for a guy polling a distant third, that’s a losing performance.

RON PAUL (4th Place, Grade: C-)

After 18 debates, there’s little new to say about Rep. Paul. He meandered, attacked the Fed, and discussed monetary policy. Here’s a prediction: He’ll do the same in the 19th debate. And the 20th. But like Santorum, he did nothing tonight that will help him suddenly surge and win the White House – and he seems to know it, acknowledging that he doesn’t “daydream” about being President.

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!