Scorecard: January 26, 2012 Republican Debate

I’ll admit it.

After 19 debates, I’ve become jaded. You may have noticed that if you read my review of Monday’s debate a few days ago. But tonight’s debate actually mattered, and it may prove decisive.

We may be able to look back to January 26, 2012 as the night Mitt Romney became the Republican nominee.

The candidates sparred energetically this evening, and the polls are doubtlessly going to shift after tonight’s performances. The question is in which direction they’ll move – and my scorecard below may help answer that question.

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

RICK SANTORUM (1st Place, Grade: A)

If this Rick Santorum had shown up to each of the previous 18 debates, he’d probably have cleared the field already and been marching toward the presidential nomination by now. Yup, he was that good.

Sen. Santorum’s finest moment came after a battle royale between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, when he passionately jumped in and scolded the two men:

“These two gentleman are out distracting from the most important issues we have by playing petty personal politics. Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies, and that’s not the worst thing in the world, and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard and he’s going out and working hard, and you guys should leave that alone and focus on the issues.”

The audience erupted at his line, showing how Santorum won Iowans over three weeks ago. But he wasn’t a one-trick pony tonight. He also took Mitt Romney to task for “RomneyCare,” saying, “Folks we can’t give this issue away in the election. It’s about freedom….Your mandate is no different than Barack Obama’s mandate.”

He had other fine moments, name-dropping the name of the Puerto Rican governor after an audience question (he had even gone to church with him), and knowledgably discussing Central and South America with great passion.

But his finest moment may have come when he was asked a throwaway question about what his wife would bring to the White House as First Lady. Unlike the other three candidates, he offered a truly heartfelt answer that likely melted the hearts of many a voter.

This is not only Mr. Santorum’s best debate, but it may be the best of any candidate so far this election cycle. Unfortunately for him, it may be too late. So any votes he picks up after tonight – and he will likely pick up many – will likely reduce Newt Gingrich’s total and pave the way for Mitt Romney to win Florida’s primary on Tuesday.

MITT ROMNEY (2nd Place, Grade: B)

Mitt Romney started the debate strong but had a couple of off moments that knocked his grade down a bit.

Early on, he schooled Newt Gingrich on the immigration issue when the former House Speaker accused him of wanting to send grandparents who had been in the U.S. illegally for years back to their home countries. “The problem is not 11 million grandmothers,” Gov. Romney said to great applause.

When Mr. Gingrich accused him of making money off of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Mr. Romney responded, “You also own mutual funds that invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” Mr. Gingrich meekly said, “right,” and retreated.

Mr. Romney hired a new debate coach recently, and it showed in his performance. He was much stronger, looked genuinely angry at moments tonight, and was better prepared.

But even a new debate coach couldn’t stop Mr. Romney from committing a few mistakes:

  1.  He denied putting an ad on the air about a quote in which Mr. Gingrich appeared to call Spanish “the language of the ghetto.” Wolf Blitzer quickly corrected him, saying that not only did he run the ad, but that it said, “I’m Mitt Romney and I approved this message.”
  2. He responded to Newt Gingrich’s idea about a moon colony by saying, “I spent 25 years in business. If I had a business executive come to me and say they want to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say you’re fired.” Can he seriously not get through a public appearance without threatening to fire someone?
  3. On health care, he told Rick Santorum, “It’s not worth getting angry about.” That line will likely be used against him for the rest of the week.

Overall, thought, Mitt Romney may be the big winner tonight. His relative strength, combined with Newt Gingrich’s weakness and Rick Santorum’s master performance, may help seal his nomination.

RON PAUL (3rd Place, Grade: C)

Let’s end the fantasy that Ron Paul has a chance to be the next president. He’s running to get attention for his issues and broaden the movement – laudable goals, but not winning ones for 2012.

At this point, CNN may as well use one of its famous holograms to replace the actual Ron Paul and just press play. We know the old familiar soliloquies by heart by now, and they were there again tonight on Fannie and Freddie, monetary policy, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

That’s not to say he didn’t have some terrific moments. When asked about his health, he challenged his opponents to a 25-mile bike ride in the Texas heat. On the colonization of the moon (yes, a real topic at this debate), Dr. Paul said. “I don’t think we should go to the moon. I think maybe we should send some politicians up there.”

Increasingly, he’s running as the libertarian Bulworth – less interested in winning than in being intellectually honest. That’s admirable. But to grade him as a serious contender at this point seems like a stretch. If he truly wanted to win, he wouldn’t go into Florida and offer a tepid defense of Israel.

NEWT GINGRICH (4th Place, Grade: D)

Tonight may be remembered as the last evening Newt Gingrich was ever viewed as a serious presidential contender.

He delivered a limp, restrained, and uncertain performance in which he wildly vacillated between offering truces to his fellow candidates and attacking them, often within seconds of each other. That he did so poorly after insisting upon a live audience (and getting it) made him look even worse. He simultaneously looked both defensive and unable to defend himself.

Not only did Mr. Gingrich lose this point to Mitt Romney, he also lost it to moderator Wolf Blitzer:

When Ron Paul later accused Mr. Gingrich of not balancing four budgets in the House as he’s been claiming, Gingrich responded that he had indeed balanced the budget, “Under the system that was used.” That’s right, folks, that perfectly parsed, Clintonesque line earned him the boos of the Republican crowd.

Finally, Mr. Gingrich said his investments are a “tiny mouse” compared with Romney’s “giant elephant.” That may well be a perfect metaphor for the rest of this campaign.

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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