Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their standing in the nomination contest.
Style: Crisp and confident. Showed the proper balance of calm and intensity. Poorly lit, but still darn handsome.
Substance: Fielded more questions than his rivals, but never seemed out of his depth.
His worst moment: Not at his sharpest on health care.
His best moment: Turned a question about his biggest vulnerability — character and constancy — into an attack on Obama that drew a strong crowd reaction, delivering a well-rehearsed line in a natural way.
The main thing: Maybe it was his Michigan roots, but the crowd was with him all night. He focused on Obama whenever he could, and faced almost no attacks from his rivals — the two-track dynamic that got him where he is in the race so far. If no one else surges in the next six weeks, the long-held conventional wisdom of a Romney alternative might go out the window.
Style: Has his hot-button sound bites down pat. And, oh, the man has Georgia chutzpah.
Substance: Bragged about how much he knows more than explained what it is he knows.
His worst moment: None stood out.
His best moment: Faced off with Maria Bartiromo on the media’s coverage of the economy and drew one of the biggest cheers of the evening.
The main thing: His near-constant display of irritability with the moderators risks puncturing his “I’m-the-seasoned-statesman/adult-in-this-thing” comeback effort. But if Perry is too weak to get more votes, Gingrich could pull himself into a one-on-one contest with Romney based on this debate performance.
Style: A little too excitable at the start, but righted himself and was polished and cool the rest of the night. Largely refrained from the kind of jokes that fell flat in previous debates.
Substance: Showed full fluency on most economic issues.
His worst moment: Was tentative and unclear on the auto industry bailouts.
His best moment: Spoke maturely about Occupy Wall Street and the need to unify the country.
The main thing: Still hasn’t learned to use his limited time to say two smart things cleanly instead of four smart things sloppily. Didn’t follow Romney’s example of auditioning to be the strongest general election candidate, using the strongest anti-Obama rhetoric — the main route to winning conservative votes. Failed to challenge Romney and grab the spotlight. Still, he leaves this debate, along with Gingrich, as a potential threat to the frontrunner.
Style: Presented his tax plan with his greatest-hits brio and wowed the crowd with his best anti-Democratic lines, referring to Congresswoman Pelosi as “Princess Nancy.” Initially a little less boisterous than usual after his rough week, though he picked up steam as the debate progressed.
Substance: Showed more command of economic issues than he has in previous debates, but that isn’t saying much.
His worst moment: Unprepared to discuss Italy’s financial problems, forcing him to dodge two questions about one of the most pressing issues of the day.
His best moment: Twenty minutes in, handled a question about the sexual harassment charges with composure and poise (and with the audience squarely behind him).
The main thing: Despite the legions of fans in the audience and a feisty, charismatic performance, the debate was a misleading oasis for Cain’s campaign. He has many tough days ahead and a gender gap that is likely to grow into a chasm. He needed to show substance and endurance but what served as support-generating lines in the past were nutrition-less red meat.
Style: Strong projection and focus.
Substance: Showed a good grasp of the problems in the housing market.
Her worst moment: Initially had a bead on her crony capitalism point but she failed to drive it home.
Her best moment: Explained her health care plan in a concrete fashion.
The main thing: As has been her trend of late, she did not break through, did not deliver any memorable lines and did not enunciate specific policies. A June debate launched her into contender status, but she just can’t find the formula this fall to make magic.
Style: Effectively intense when discussing the dangers of debt.
Substance: Talked wisely about the big macroeconomic dynamics causing the current troubles.
His worst moment: Spoke inadequately about protecting health care programs for the elderly in the event of radical changes.
His best moment: Several of his early answers were exceptionally lucid.
The main thing: Given the volatility surrounding Perry and Cain, and the relative strength of his performance, Paul might see his ceiling of support rise a bit after this. But a higher ceiling is still a ceiling.
Style: Once again showed explicit frustration at his frequent exclusion from the questioning.
Substance: Knows his stuff, but didn’t break through with a signature idea or program.
His worst moment: Sounded more braggart than expert when describing his Senate work on health care and housing.
His best moment: None stood out.
The main thing: He missed a real opportunity to compete with Gingrich for the conservative support currently parked with Cain.
Style: At times, populist and dignified. Refrained from attacking Romney, as in the Las Vegas debate, and thus was invisible for long stretches. His campaign put out anti-Romney press releases during the evening but that’s not the same thing.
Substance: Too vague and passive about his own energy and tax plans.
His worst moment: An epic disaster. Couldn’t remember the third part of government he wants to eliminate, despite being given an eternity to produce his response – about as awkward an exchange as any candidate has had in any presidential debate, ever.
His best moment: Tough disquisition on how regulation is “killing” America.
The main thing: The media (and many voters and donors) were ready to write Perry off before this debate; those numbers will grow exponentially, thanks to the brain freeze that will be replayed in the coming news cycles and beyond. He can put his head down and try to get past the error, but it is going to be very tough.