Scorecard: February 22, 2012 Republican Debate

Tonight’s debate – the 20th of this election cycle – came less than one week before the possibly decisive Michigan and Arizona primaries.

Coming into tonight’s debate, Sen. Rick Santorum had the national lead in most polls, was narrowly leading most Michigan polls, and was closing the gap in Arizona. Did he do enough to retain his new frontrunner status, or did he fumble the political football on his opponent’s ten yard line?

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

RON PAUL (1st Place, Grade: B+)

Rep. Paul had one of his better debates tonight.

One of his best moments came on international policy, when he said the United States shouldn’t be talking about war with Iran. He told the crowd that although he recognizes that he won’t win the moral or constitutional argument in the short-term, he would win the economic one right away. He then offered a passionate plea to his opponents: if you’re going to lead us into war, at least get a declaration of war from Congress. “The obligation should be the oath to the office,” he said, “not the oath to the party.”

Dr. Paul also got a few digs in, shrugging his shoulders and laughing while calling Rick Santorum a “fake.” No other candidate could get away with such a direct attack, and Mr. Santorum offered a minimal defense, weakly telling Paul, “I’m real.”

Paul made a questionable assertion at the end of the night, when he was asked what the biggest media misconception about him is. He said it was “the media myth” that he couldn’t win. As a reminder, Ron Paul lost all 50 states in 2008, and is winless after nine contests this year. That makes him “0 for 59,” hardly a media myth and more an obvious electoral reality.

But he was right on the one word that defined him more than any other: “consistent.” Even his harshest critics would have a tough time making the case that his adjective of choice is anything but spot on.

NEWT GINGRICH (2nd Place, Grade: B)

Speaker Gingrich had a decent night tonight, but didn’t fundamentally do anything to help resurrect his flagging campaign.

As usual, he used strong language, lashing out that it is “utterly stupid to say the United States can’t control the border.” He also used evocative language, saying, “I’m inclined to believe dictators.” That line, of course, could be used against him in political ads – if his opponents determine that he’s relevant enough to be worthy of their attacks. I don’t expect they will.

Mr. Gingrich spoke of a “modern management system” in four answers. I’ve yet to hear a political base – especially one craving a strong emotional appeal – fired up about that kind of process-oriented language. A new “management system” may be good government, but it’s unlikely to influence tens of thousands of voters to suddenly change their votes.

When asked to define himself in one word, Mr. Gingrich selected, “cheerful.” It’s better than “strategery” or “lockbox,” but let’s hope he meant that one sarcastically.

MITT ROMNEY (3rd Place, Grade: B-)

It’s hard to know whether Mitt Romney had a good night or whether Rick Santorum had a bad one. Graded objectively, Gov. Romney didn’t do much to make himself look more likable or relatable tonight. But sometimes, the strongest candidate is the one left standing at the end of the battle as his opponents eliminate themselves one-by-one.

Mr. Romney did have some good moments, twisting the metaphorical knife in Rick Santorum’s side when Santorum started flailing. He derided one of Santorum’s answers, saying, “I didn’t follow all of that,” and reminded viewers that Santorum had voted for the infamous Bridge to Nowhere.

Somehow, Romney even managed to lay blame at Santorum’s feet for “ObamaCare,” saying, “Don’t look at me, take a look in the mirror.” His point, which contained a bit of twisted logic, was that because Santorum had supported moderate Republican Senator Arlen Specter over the more conservative Pat Toomey, Republicans lost a critical vote against President Obama’s health care law.

Mr. Romney had a few off moments, but they didn’t play terribly on television, thanks to the obviously pro-Romney crowd. He dodged the last question of the night, when he was asked about what misconceptions the public has about him. When reminded of the original question by moderator John King, Romney retorted: “You get to ask the questions you want, I get to answer the questions I want.”

And when asked to define himself, he used the word, “resolute.” That shows either a shocking lack of self-awareness or a brazen attempt to recreate his political past.

RICK SANTORUM (4th Place, Grade: C-)

This was a bad night for Rick Santorum.

As the new GOP frontrunner, he was predictably attacked by his three opponents. But instead of transitioning to safer ground, he spent most of the night on the defensive, trying in vain to explain his way out of corners instead of just moving to the center of the ring.

For example, during one particularly grueling answer on his support for No Child Left Behind, he earned the enmity of the pro-Romney crowd with a long, process-oriented answer, followed by a lecture that “politics is a team sport.” He ended his answer by boosting his credentials as a “home schooling father of seven.”

A better approach would have been to begin his answer with his home schooling bona fides instead of adding them at the end as an afterthought. He should have used that technique during the entire evening, beginning each answer with a strong, action-oriented headline instead of getting mired in explanations about the slow-churning legislative process.

It wasn’t all bad for Santorum. He offered a passionate defense about the importance of family, and delivered a strong retort to Ron Paul’s assertion that his voting record wasn’t conservative enough. He helped diminish the controversies surrounding his views on contraception by saying, “Just because I’m talking about it doesn’t mean I want a government program to fix it.”

He also got a good line off when Mitt Romney bragged about balancing the Massachusetts state budget: “[Former Massachusetts Democratic Governor] Michael Dukakis balanced the budget for ten years. Does that make him qualified to be president? I don’t think so.”

Overall, though, Mr. Santorum had a bad night at the worst possible moment for his campaign. Don’t be surprised if his poll numbers slip a bit between now and next Tuesday.

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!