Grading the Ames Debate

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Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their standing in the nomination contest.

Romney

Style: Easily the most presidential figure on the stage. Confident, calm, well-prepared, even when talking about hot button issues such as gay marriage that in 2008 made him visibly uncomfortable.

Substance: Befitting his campaign to date, no real effort to set forth a detailed agenda.

The worst moment: Deflected (more than defended) a question about invoking tax increases to get Massachusetts an S&P credit rating upgrade. And/but he still is going to have to answer the core of the question later.

The best moment: Showed progress in his ability to fluidly and non-defensively defend his gubernatorial health care law.

The main thing: Maintained his pre-Perry lead, and likely impressed some GOP mainstreamers in Iowa with his fluency. Kept his focus on jobs and President Obama whenever he could. Remained above, and out of, the fray, as Pawlenty and Bachmann attacked each other—amazingly, there were hardly any attempts to go after the lead dog. Broken record alert: enters the frontrunner, leaves the frontrunner.

Grade: A-

Bachmann

Style: Jovial but firm. Sometimes failed to modulate her fired-up campaign trail heat for the more sedate setting of a debate. Overall, managed to be upbeat and optimistic in tone, even when her words were dire. It is a gift.

Substance: Critiqued Obama rather than offering her own detailed plans.

The worst moment: Her answer about the debt ceiling could raise hackles among supporters and donors.

The best moment: Effectively fought back against Pawlenty by cherry-picking some of his more moderate stances as governor.

The main thing: The only one besides Romney to have a genuinely solid night. Her performance was strong overall, albeit less of a surprise than her debut New Hampshire star turn (and therefore less impactful on national buzz). Clearly (and audibly) the crowd favorite.

Grade: B+

Pawlenty

Style: Tough and focused when going after Bachmann. But threw out too many pre-canned dud one-liners alongside the good ones, and generally failed to rouse the otherwise excitable audience. The pressure to perform was visible upon him.

Substance: His usual solid fluency on national security.

The worst moment: Gratuitous jokey shot at Romney’s wealth seemed off point and petty.

The best moment: Had the courage to repeat his campaign trail accusation that Bachmann hasn’t accomplished anything in Congress – then ratcheted up the charge after his Minnesota rival turned the fire back on him, saying her failure to stop President Obama’s agenda was “killing” the country.

The main thing: There’s no way to know how Pawlenty’s strong anti-Bachmann rhetoric will play with voters, especially women. But he gave it his all to paint Bachmann’s congressional record as a joke. If Ames is his Waterloo, he went down fighting.

Grade: B

Huntsman

Style: Not particularly smooth or confident (perhaps rattled by nerves in his first debate); utterly failed to be a dominating persona on the stage.

Substance: Nodded to his deep policy expertise on China when handling a question about espionage, but failed to connect his views to the real lives of real people.

The worst moment: Initial answer, to a relative softball about fixing the economy, was rambling, unspecific, and halting – missing the chance to make a strong first impression.

The best moment: Staunch defense of his backing of civil unions without inflaming those on the right.

The main thing: Error-free, but did nothing to overcome his soft-spoken nature and fight his way into the debate news coverage. If he needed a breakthrough night, he didn’t get it.

Grade: C+

Gingrich

Style: His usual pugnacious self.

Substance: Took a crowd-pleasing stance against the budget deficit Super Committee.

The worst moment: Referencing Reagan on first answer reinforced the “Newt is yesterday” meme that is so deleterious to his chances.

The best moment: Hammered Chris Wallace for asking about his faltering campaign, rather than substance, winning over the crowd. (Although his harping on the “gotcha” issue got old fast).

The main thing: A classic Gingrich performance as a truth teller, making the voters laugh and nod in agreement. But not controlling enough to change his place in the sweepstakes.

Grade: C+

Santorum

Style: Has improved as a candidate. Good humor, focused rhetoric, and a confidence deriving from the knowledge that his extensive time on the ground in Iowa has advanced his cause.

Substance: Strong explication of the importance of the Tenth Amendment.

The worst moment: Picked fights with Ron Paul on Iran, which probably doesn’t get him much.

The best moment: Fought his way several times into discussions, against the rules, but adroitly, and with audience support.

The main thing: Got plenty of airtime and made the best of it. Still no clear path to the nomination, but wins “most improved” from the last debate.

Grade: C

Paul

Style: Still too apocalyptic on America’s economy, rather than inspirational, optimistic or thoughtful.

Substance: His usual laundry list of principles, but no specifics or true connection to unemployment or other pressing voter concerns.

The worst moment: Scattered immigration answer got some crowd applause but reinforced his ranting image.

The best moment: Played to the faithful in full force by welcoming Perry to the race, saying it would put in sharper relief his monopoly on the libertarian agenda.

The main thing: Got a lot of time to talk, but was again unsuccessful at breaking through to a broader base.

Grade: C-

Cain

Style: Crisp and cheerful, but didn’t drive the “I’m the only non-politician in the race” theme as well as he has in past debates.

Substance: Doesn’t seem to be going for substantive policy proposals at all.

The worst moment: Stumbled over a multi-part question about past foreign policy miscues.

The best moment: None stood out.

The main thing: He might have peaked too early before Ames, and now Rick Perry threatens to take some votes from his pocket.

Grade: C-

Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their standing in the nomination contest.

Related Topics: 2012 Elections

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