Grading the Desert Dust-Up


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


Style: Rose above the fray on jobs and the economy, while Cain took heat for his 9-9-9 plan. Sought to play the adult, although Perry goaded him into noisy squabbles and went further than necessary in playing defense, taking some personal shots.

Substance: Displayed a cutting recall and delivery of detailed opposition research on his opponents — notable in such a setting.

His worst moment: Lost his cool fending off Perry on immigration and seemed shrill when asserting it was his turn.

His best moment: Showed the eye of the tiger in fighting off Santorum’s attempts to question his commitment to repealing ObamaCare.

The main thing: A strong voice on Mormonism, health care, immigration and the economy. Revealed chinks when assailed, likely emboldening Perry for future conflict. Still, no soundbite-ready moment of weakness coming out of Vegas and that means another win for the frontrunner.

Grade:  A-


Style: Stronger and more confident than in past debates. Did small things well — cleverly gave out his website address in the guise of educating the public.

Substance: In command of the broad facts on health care and taxes, but weaker on foreign aid and terrorism.

His worst moment: Missed a chance to connect with middle and working class voters when responsding to a question about Occupy Wall Street protesters.

His best moment: Withstood early, intense gang-up on his tax plan, without changing his pleasing demeanor.

The main thing: Did very little attacking and a good job defending (although he overused his apples and oranges metaphor). Disappeared after the opening round but showed sufficient momentum throughout. Still too lightweight for the Chattering Class, but whatever has propelled Cain upward, upward, upward will almost certainly continue after this strong performance.

Grade:  B+


Style: His head was in a much better place than in previous debates, allowing him to show off some natural Texas charm. But going negative on Romney (including insistently bringing up the old controversy of illegal immigrants working on Romney’s lawn) reduced the likeability quotient substantially.

Substance: Didn’t drill down below the bullet points on his economic plan or take command of the issue.

His worst moment: Tried to challenge Romney on immigration, but lost his focus and thrust in the heated interchange.

His best moment: When slamming Obama’s energy policy, reminded viewers that the party is looking for the candidate who can most effectively make the case against the incumbent — and Perry demonstrated he has that capacity.

The main thing: More focused and energized this time around. Far from a perfect performance, but he engineered moments of titan-versus-titan conflict with Romney to build on in future debates. That, along with big budget TV advertising, remains his path back to the front of the pack.

Grade:  B+


Style: Forceful and passionate on every answer.

Substance: Showed off her knowledge of tax policy.

Her worst moment: Just when the Romney health care pile-on was heating up, she interrupted to take the conversation in a different direction.

Her best moment: Deft touch in knocking Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan.

The main thing: Her best debate since the June New Hampshire face-off that made her the hottest candidate in the race for a time. Still not selling her own economic plan or claiming a signature issue, but carried a strong anti-Obama critique throughout.

Grade:  B


Style: Cool and poised, he displayed assurance rather than anger.

Substance: Informed on every topic, but neglected to drive a positive message of his own.

His worst moment: Got schooled by Romney, who forced him to admit he once supported an individual mandate for health insurance.

His best moment: His appeal to Hispanic voters was passionate and clear, and the audience seemed intrigued by the notion of an epic Gingrich-Obama debate.

The main thing: Played the elder statesman well and was engaging, but didn’t leap over Romney or Cain.

Grade:  B


Style: Struck a good balance between genial and serious.

Substance: Still has trouble bringing his policy oratory down from 30,000 feet to, say, 15,000 feet, so people can understand how it impacts their lives.

His worst moment: Nearly incoherent on Occupy Wall Street and bailouts, a topic that should have been in his wheelhouse.

His best moment: Struck a huge audience chord with his call to bring the troops home from Afghanistan.

The main thing: Overall, more accessible and clear than in previous debates. But still no breakthrough performance to expand his reach.

Grade:  B-


Style: Had flashes of his usual forensic skills, but at times veered towards fraught.

Substance: Still focused more on rhetoric and criticism than concrete policies; asserts he has an economic plan, but doesn’t sell it with specifics.

His worst moment: Given an early chance to take on Cain and 9-9-9, he didn’t puncture his rival one bit.

His best moment: None stand out.

The main thing: Not as polished and distinct as in past sessions. Energetic on the attack, but had plenty of company this time and got marginalized.

Grade:  C

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