Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their standing in the nomination contest.
Style: Perfect pitch for the Republican electorate (and many independents) on assailing Obama’s record with both sadness and anger. Confident, yet not arrogant. Maintained a good balance between cheerful and tough.
Substance: Showed his usual fluidity on economic issues. Rightly called out the other candidates for not putting forward their own health care plans. Offered a good defense of a capital gains tax proposal that wouldn’t benefit the wealthiest Americans.
His worst moment: Came dangerously close to defending TARP.
His best moment: All two hours — no one laid a glove on him — nor barely tried.
The main thing: It’s increasingly difficult to see how he trips up in one of these debates. In his second serious national go-round, a much more polished performer than his rivals, and well aware of the traps to avoid. Clocked 120 more minutes of playing at a different level than everyone else on the stage, highlighting his exclusive presidential aura. With his Christie endorsement and another non-game-changing debate under his belt, he is another two steps closer to the nomination.
Style: Toned down his brashness in favor of a more serious demeanor. Never cracked under the pressure of new scrutiny.
Substance: Showcased his 9-9-9 tax plan without added specifics (perhaps, after weeks of the hard sell, shorthand is now warranted).
His worst moment: Went to the 9-9-9 well once too often, drawing laughter and threatening his gravitas.
His best moment: When confronted with a critical assessment of 9-9-9, replied, “The problem with that analysis is it is incorrect.” The audience loved it.
The main thing: The center of attention, and more of a target than Romney or Perry. Stood his ground throughout, without getting rattled or shape shifting on style or substance. Did nothing to stop his recent momentum, and more likely than not accelerated it.
Style: Crowd-pleasing populism, including a tirade against Fed Chairman Bernanke.
Substance: Exhibited the kind of policy chops on the Fed and health care that he thought would be his calling card in all the debates.
His worst moment: Suggesting that Barney Frank and Chris Dodd should be put in jail before prosecutors examine Wall Street wrongdoing.
His best moment: Took charge and broke in to indict Bernanke/Paulson/Geithner.
The main thing: Probably his best debate, with a vintage Gingrich mixture of scathing attacks, big ideas, optimism and apocalyptic concern. Likely not the beginning of a Newt Renaissance, but another step towards salvaged dignity and redemption.
Style: Another strong, stately performance.
Substance: Laid out his jobs plan in a measured way.
His worst moment: Wasted his chance to question another candidate by offering a long, unfocused wind-up on TARP.
His best moment: Polled the audience on Cain’s tax plan and found just one taker.
The main thing: Kept his debate streak alive of talking often, talking well and playing to his rhetorical strengths. Despite his best efforts, still hasn’t found a way to get over the Cain hurdle, but he is well positioned to gain votes, particularly if Cain stumbles down the road.
Style: Still too earnest and, occasionally, passive. But smart and sturdy, his manner might play well with New Hampshire voters.
Substance: Flexed his brain on China trade policy.
His worst moment: Despite his natural wit, he’s still telling too many corny and mean-spirited eye-rollers.
His best moment: Sold his Utah record in a more organic way than usual.
The main thing: Closer to showing his true self — as a reasonable, experienced adult — than in most of the other debates. But unable to contrast himself with Romney and alter the New Hampshire dynamic, which he must do to stay in the game.
Style: Calm and steady, but low-energy, halting and sometimes unfocused. Thrown off balance by a question about Ronald Reagan and taxes. In one response, seemed to suggest that policies aren’t necessary.
Substance: Previewed his upcoming Friday speech, connecting new sources of American energy with economic revival — but didn’t reveal much.
His worst moment: Disappeared for about thirty minutes right after the start of the debate — too long a chunk for an aspirant frontrunner with something to prove.
His best moment: Did a fine job presenting some of his health care ideas.
The main thing: Didn’t drive a message, didn’t seem big, didn’t break through in any way. Not the mess that he was in his first three debates, but treaded water rather than gained ground. He had something to prove and he failed.
Style: The seated format seemed to suit her.
Substance: Effective critique of ObamaCare and rationing.
Her worst moment: None.
Her best moment: Gave a clear takedown of Cain’s proposed sales tax.
The main thing: Was just fine, but did nothing to stand out or leave the audience with a signature issue. At a debate focused on the economy, on the day she chose to release her economic plan, that was a baffling failure.
Style: More genial and even-keeled than usual.
Substance: Gave a linear explanation of Fed secrecy.
His worst moment: None – his usual consistent, clever, quirky self.
His best moment: Riled the crowd with his denunciation of Alan Greenspan’s Fed reign, after Cain praised the former chair.
The main thing: Pleased his rock-solid base, but made no apparent move to grow his support.