Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their standing in the nomination contest.
Style: Proved every bit as tough as Perry in opening jousts. More natural and comfortable than usual, even/especially when delivering his pre-canned lines—many of which scored powerfully.
Substance: Strong on a variety of issues, but surprisingly, never shifted the focus to his detailed economic plan unveiled Tuesday.
His worst moment: Had trouble defending his Massachusetts health care law, still sounding addled and uncertain every time it comes up.
His best moment: Fluid, politically potent slap-down of Perry on his inflammatory Social Security rhetoric: “Our nominee has to be somebody who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security.”
The main thing: Came prepared with clear stats and a good attitude. Showed he won’t back down in the face of the Perry surge. Smart enough to retreat after Perry’s Social Security flap, increasing the odds that it will be the story of the night. Once again, looked fit, at ease, and more like a president than anyone on stage–including his main competition.
Style: Jabbed at Romney whenever possible, and was smooth and confident while doing so. Often looked straight to the camera, rather than at the moderators or in-room audience—an effective alpha male move. Smiled, mugged, and joked easily, flaunting his earthy Texan charm, although occasionally appeared a bit tentative.
Substance: Stood by his stark “Ponzi scheme” record on Social Security. Claimed the federal government is to blame for Texas’ dead-last standing on insurance coverage. Never sounded like a policy wonk, but evinced a reasonable command of policy basics—although he faltered on climate change at debate’s end. Offered a robust defense of the death penalty.
His worst moment: Defiantly stood by the passages about Social Security in his controversial 2010 book ”Fed Up” in a manner as ominous as it was unclear.
His best moment: Telling the world that Michael Dukakis had a better record on jobs than Romney.
The main thing: Largely followed his advisors’ strategy: severe on Romney without being mean-spirited, solution-oriented when discussing the nation’s problems, adept at dodging unwelcome questions, appealingly loose and accessibly human. But his Social Security answer is sure to get a lot of scrutiny from the press, Democrats and Republicans (Romney included). The press will kill him on climate change, too. Not bad for a first debate, but second best is second best.
Style: Displayed the reasonable, conservative persona of a Republican leader. Although mild in manner, sounded smart and constructive.
Substance: Talked in generalities for the most part, but was decent in broad strokes.
His worst moment: Fighting sickness, he seemed to lose energy (and his voice) after a strong start.
His best moment: Made a powerful, sweeping case for his experience on jobs and internationally in response to a question on China.
The main thing: Launched into the debate with aggression and purpose, but faded by the end. With the overheated Perry-Romney focus, did perhaps as well as he could–- but had difficulty breaking through and regaining ground.
Style: Bright and collected, if somewhat tense. Kept her focus on Obama, even when invited to critique RomneyCare.
Substance: Still just skimming the surface, although refrained from excessively touting her record in the House, in contrast to past debates.
Her worst moment: Shied away from attacking Perry despite proffered opportunities–she’ll have to take him on if she wants back in the hunt.
Her best moment: Didn’t really have any, which was her chief problem.
The main thing: Still smoother and more composed than her cartoonish pre-candidacy image, but is no longer benefiting from low expectations. There is an air of desperation around her efforts now that she has been muscled out of the first tier by Perry.
Style: Mr. Consistent –- mild, earnest, eager for everyone to know that he was an activist Senator.
Substance: Didn’t own any issue in an eye-catching manner.
His worst moment: More than once, sounded a bit tinny, a little whiny.
His best moment: Defended America’s role around the world in a principled, passionate manner.
The main thing: Wants desperately to be a player in this thing, but has not found the alchemy required to mirror Joe Biden in 2008 and play above his poll standing as a debater.
Style: Cantankerous, accusatory, and unfocused.
Substance: Rarely showed his substantial policy chops.
His worst moment: Angrily suggested that moderator efforts to explore differences between the GOP candidates are a media plot against the Republican Party.
His best moment: Gave a strong, detailed answer on immigration reform, the likes of which hasn’t been seen much in these debates so far.
The main thing: Failed to appear presidential and distinguished. Despite hearty audience approval, didn’t execute any discernable strategy to win the nomination.
Style: Adopted a more presidential mien than in past debates, but was crowded out and made no distinct impression.
Substance: Still unable to break through with a signature policy issue.
His worst moment: A rambling answer about Chile and retirement.
His best moment: Decent response on taxes, just as the debate was ending.
The main thing: Had less verve than usual. Failed to stand out or improve his standing.
Style: Adopted a more negative tone towards the other candidates, as he and his campaign have started to do in recent weeks.
Substance: Demonstrated a familiarity with Perry’s Texas record that allowed for some detailed critiques.
His worst moment: Hemmed and hawed when challenged by Perry on his record of fidelity to Reagan (at the Reagan library!).
His best moment: Nothing stood out.
The main thing: Was given many opportunities to talk, but made little substantive use of the time. His new strategy — going after the frontrunner, rather than just following his own drummer — noticeably tanked. He came across as angry, and he made his ire seem personal, a petty Texas feud.