Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their standing in the nomination contest.
Style: Turned back up the fiery anti-Obama rhetoric. Sounded like a grown up. Presidential and hawkish with national security answers.
Substance: Fluid and confident on almost every question, but continued to restrict himself mostly to generalities.
His worst moment: Slinked, slid, and denied when confronted by Perry about his support for some Obama education policies, playing into the “flip-floppin’ Mitt” meme of ’08.
His best moment: Effectively rocked Rick Perry back on his heels by challenging his apparent change on Social Security’s constitutionality and the notion of states opting out of the program.
The main thing: He’s got his economic plan talking points down cold, and has the confidence to annoy reporters by repeating messages that he knows the public still hasn’t digested. Smartly ignored or sidestepped questions he didn’t want to answer, such as criticism from the Wall Street Journal editorial board and whether he thinks of President Obama as a socialist. Heralded himself as a supporter of the middle class in early answer on the economy, a smart general election posture. Escaped once again with his political vulnerabilities largely shielded. Might have been strong enough to even scare off Chris Christie!
Style: More confident with each debate. Pretty effective eye roller.
Substance: The man knows his stuff, as he has made clear, from his Senate career.
His worst moment: Stumbled a bit with a confusing answer about “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
His best moment: Got primetime focus in a heated colloquy with Perry on immigration.
The main thing: Made big strides in stealing Bachmann’s thunder as the conservative alternative to Perry, hitting even harder and more effectively than Romney too.
Style: Same tone, same cadence, same volume, but fewer canned lines.
Substance: Still lacks a signature, distinctive way to talk about the economy, but remains effective when displaying her conservative credentials. Gave a confusing answer about tax rates.
Her worst moment: Missed an opportunity to take on Perry over immigration.
Her best moment: Deflected question about her recent controversial statement about Perry’s vaccine program by bringing the fight back to the Texan.
The main thing: Still somewhat out of the game compared to her star-making New Hampshire debate. Many of her answers were perfectly fine – they just didn’t break through at all.
Style: Often too dense in his rhetoric, but shined when he spoke deliberately and simply, such as on immigration.
Substance: Touted the idea of tying unemployment compensation to required training, an idea with bipartisan support.
His worst moment: None stood out.
His best moment: Made a good statement about education reform that was clear and confident.
The main thing: Strong when he speaks, but still not dominating or resonating the way he imagined he would.
Style: On more solid footing, but still talking less like a presidential candidate than a gubernatorial hopeful.
Substance: Got to display his big brain on a range of issues.
His worst moment: Picked a fight with Santorum over Afghanistan for no apparent reason.
His best moment: Closing joke about Perry and Romney bludgeoning each other to death, paired with a reminder that four years ago, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson were the polling frontrunners.
The main thing: His style isn’t fiery enough to enflame a debate studio audience. It remains all about New Hampshire for him.
Style: Once again, was not as big or as presidential as Romney. Inconsistent eye contact with his rivals and the audience.
Substance: Still lacking a detailed jobs plan, he remained reliant on touting his Texas record when asked for specifics. Seemed to misstate his position on an Arizona immigration law.
His worst moment: His answer on the Taliban obtaining Pakistani nuclear weapons will be picked at and over by those who doubt he is sufficiently knowledgeable about national security issues.
His best moment: None stood out.
The main thing: Tried to engage Romney in several instances, but got no clean kills. Was too peevish and defensive, too willing to let weaker candidates engage him. This was his third debate chance to shine, blow the field away, show foreign policy fluency, and prove he has what it takes: he failed.
Style: Loose, confident, and breezy.
Substance: Got his cleanest shot yet to explain his economic plan and did well with it.
His worst moment: None stood out.
His best moment: Set the crowd on fire with a call to abolish the EPA.
The main thing: He was charming throughout the night, including talking about his fight with cancer.
Style: In his maiden appearance, was strong from the git-go, weaving in his New Mexico record, and showing a sense of humor.
Substance: Took the edge off his flakey image with serious answers, and didn’t have to answer any queries about drug legalization.
His worst moment: Gave a few answers that were garbled.
His best moment: His joke about his next door neighbor’s two dogs creating shovel-ready jobs.
The main thing: Didn’t talk much, but earned his place on the stage.
Style: Got the softest of softball questions about the 10th Amendment and slam dunked it to audience hoots.
Substance: More fluid on policy than in the previous debates.
His worst moment: Gave stumbling answer on abortion.
His best moment: His call for Washington to get out of education jazzed the crowd.
The main thing: Didn’t do anything to raise his ceiling of support, although a new television ad buy just might.