Grading the Mouths of the South

TIME Photo-Illustration
TIME Photo-Illustration

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

Gingrich

Style: Confident, droll, pure Newt. Avoided taking on his rivals, even when asked explicitly to do so, instead cleverly and honestly praising them (following the current Republican rules of combat and looking like a grown-up as a bonus). But showed a tendency to overdo the jargon.

Substance: His best debate yet at playing the smartest person on the stage. Gave a sweeping, point-by-point answer on how to deal with Iran.

His worst moment: None stood out.

His best moment: Lit up the room with his tough talk on the war on terror.

The main thing: Still flaunting his knowledge rather than taking on Romney. Seems to feel that Newt being Newt is enough to win — given his recent success and upswing — and that isn’t a crazy notion. But he has done nothing to shore up his vulnerabilities, leaving him wide open when and if Mitt needs to go negative on the former Speaker.

Grade: A-
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Perry

Style: Purposeful and serious throughout. Made an effort to move past last debate’s brain freeze with deft jokes about the notorious episode and solid answers about the evening’s topic. His connection to military culture and families was passionate and genuine, which plays well in South Carolina. Focused on building himself up, rather than tearing anyone else down.

Substance: Came across as perfectly well informed on topics such as Pakistan and China.

His worst moment: Left a mess to clean up on Israel when advocating zero-based budgeting for all aid to foreign nations; it would have been easy to make a stronger case for Israel both the first time he brought it up and after the later follow-up question.

His best moment: The Israel error notwithstanding, his foreign aid answer brought his “change Washington” message to life.

The main thing: If Perry had performed this way from the beginning of his late-starting campaign, he probably would still be up with the frontrunners. Saturday night is not necessarily the best time to make a second impression, but if he can perform like this in the upcoming Iowa debates, he could change the game. Again.

Grade: B+

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Romney

Style: Smartly stayed on his aggressive anti-Obama tact, claiming Obama’s re-election would lead inexorably to a nuclear-capable Iran. Was his usual smooth, collected self.

Substance: Ready for every question. Firm on whether the US should negotiate with the Taliban.

His worst moment: Too fuzzy on troop timelines in Afghanistan if he means to be commander-in-chief in fifteen months.

His best moment: Tough China answer will draw some heat, but played to voter sentiment.

The main thing: Not nearly as dominating as in previous debates, receiving no attacks from his rivals and fewer questions from the moderators. Opened up a torrent of criticism with Afghanistan answer, but otherwise mostly kept his head down. A performance more than good enough for his purposes, but he’ll need his A-game for the upcoming Iowa debates.

Grade: B+

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Huntsman

Style: More confident and comfortable with every debate. Showed some of his charm, which he has mostly hidden up until now.

Substance: Well-informed about every topic, but didn’t make his knowledge particularly accessible to lay people.

His worst moment: Despite his expertise on China, gave a mushy, undistinguished answer that was too conciliatory to match the public’s mood.

His best moment: Clear, resonant explanation of why he wants to get out of Afghanistan, shared for once in a high-profile forum.

The main thing: As the foreign policy expert in the field, didn’t get as many questions as he was likely expecting. Concrete and engaging on every answer, but failed to dominate the stage. Still hasn’t figured out how to be true to himself, substantive and/but break through under the rules of modern politics.

Grade: B

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Bachmann

Style: Skilfully alternated her tone between stateswoman and firebrand, with plenty of Obama one-liners.

Substance: Thoughtful and specific on almost every answer.

Her worst moment: Rambled a bit when talking about government spending.

Her best moment: Base-pleasing comment about Obama being more willing to stand with Occupy Wall Street than with Israel.

The main thing: She got to talk a lot and she made the most of it. If there’s a comeback for her, South Carolina is part of it and she served herself quite well.

Grade: B-

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Santorum

Style: Still trying to get too much credit for his congressional work, and talking too much Senate-ese (Read the IAEA report!).

Substance: Showed his chops on national security, without a doubt.

His worst moment: Knows Iran well, but failed to give an answer of appropriate stature and passion.

His best moment: Learned, balanced answer on Pakistan (but late in the debate).

The main thing: His momentum has been sapped by Gingrich and Cain and he seems to have hit a ceiling after regular improvement in earlier debates.

Grade: C+

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Paul

Style: Calmly disagreed with his rivals, including on the Iranian threat and the issue of torture.

Substance: Always in the game on every topic.

His worst moment: None stood out.

His best moment: Gave a passionate, principled answer about water boarding and torture that found some heartfelt audience support.

The main thing: Got ample time to talk and produced a few Paulian moments in which his rivals tried to use his answer as a foil. But never had the kind of soundbite drama that might rally more of the isolationist wing of the party to his side.

Grade: C

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Cain

Style: Barely skimmed the surface of the debate’s issues but maintained a certainty of tone that kept him from looking fully uninformed to some voters.

Substance: Discussed the threat from Iran with a solid, dovish perspective, and offered a few more national security specifics than usual, but mostly tentative and vague throughout.

His worst moment: Halting, imprecise answer on torture, suggesting a lack of experience and preparation.

His best moment: None stood out.

The main thing: Given his lack of experience, it is easy to see this debate for Cain as a matter of survival and in that sense he succeeded. There is no soundbite gaffe to be played to suggest he is in over his head. But to anyone paying attention, he showed that he is a lot more comfortable talking about taxes than the Taliban.

Grade: C-

Related Topics: Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, 2012 Elections, News, Republican Party, The Page

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