Grading the Des Moines Dust-Up

HALPGRADESIA

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

Gingrich

Style: Assured, focused and (sometimes) gruff. Remembered to smile whenever possible but turned harsh in the face of a few personal slams. Overly pedantic at times.

Substance: Nobody better at listing off bullet point ideas in a serious and accessible manner. Did well explaining his immigration position.

His worst moments: Nastily mocked Romney’s Senate loss to Ted Kennedy and snarled visibly when pushing back against a Bachmann attack.

His best moment: After facing down an awkward question about adultery and the subsequent indictment of his infidelity by Perry and Santorum, responded with a non-defensive, unruffled version of his usual reply, acknowledging error and reminding people he is now a 68-year-old grandfather.

The main thing: Was treated by moderators and rivals like the frontrunner all night. Came in knowing he would be attacked and stood firm throughout, citing Reagan and generally turning the other cheek. Counterpunched Romney’s initial extended attack with confidence and care. If Iowans are turned off by Gingrich’s scowl, his brusqueness, his apparent self-importance, they saw plenty of it in the debate. But it isn’t clear voters dislike all that stuff. As with Romney until now: entered the frontrunner and leaves the frontrunner.

Grade: A-
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Romney

Style: A bit rote, to start, but loosened up. Good judgment about when to go tough and when to stay measured.

Substance: Mostly stuck to big themes rather than detailed policy pitches.

His worst moment: Blithely challenging Perry to a $10,000 bet, alienating untold numbers of anxious voters for whom such a sum would be life-changing.

His best moment: Humanized the unemployment crisis by talking about young people being out of work.

The main thing: Ably presented a contrast with Gingrich. But if it is true he needs to neuter Newt before January 3, he failed. Probably benefited from the strong performances of Perry, Bachmann and Paul – all of whom could take votes from Gingrich. Still adept overall, but in general less solid than in previous face-offs. Most of all: the $10,000 mistake will live long; the media, the Democrats and his competitors have all already seized on it and won’t stop.

Grade: B+
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Paul

Style: Calmer and more deliberate than usual, to the good. Talked affectingly about the real lives of real people, rather than in his usual abstractions.

Substance: Hit hard on foreign aid and the expensive US embassy in Iraq.

His worst moment: When Gingrich pushed back on his joust about his record and influence peddling, Paul lost momentum.

His best moment: Made a fundamental case against Gingrich with style and humor.

The main thing: Every political sharpie in Iowa thinks Paul could win the caucuses and he delivered a performance that will energize his base and maybe even add some followers. He is closing strong, which is the way to win the state.

Grade: B
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Perry

Style: Opened with powerful populist strike against Washington and Wall Street, then faded blandly into the woodwork — but roared back in the closing moments.

Substance: Offered some clear analysis on a variety of issues but didn’t break through with his tax plan.

His worst moment: Abrasive and didactic when arguing that Gingrich’s infidelity suggests something about his overall trustworthiness.

His best moment: Rose above the din during discussion of Newt’s Palestinian comment to give his rival a pass and make an extended, articulate critique of the Obama administration’s Middle East policies.

The main thing: Laid a foundation to keep momentum going but failed to dominate the stage. One of his better debates, but the format still doesn’t play to his strengths.

Grade: B
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Bachmann

Style: Poised, bold and well-prepared. But she sometimes sounded overly rehearsed and had a tendency to look at the moderators, rather than at the camera.

Substance: Opposed the extension of the payroll tax cut with a succinct explanation.

Her worst moment: Missed a chance to step into combat over Gingrich’s Palestinian comment by telling a rambling story about her time in Israel.

Her best moment: Offered a clear contrast with Gingrich and Romney, just as she’s been doing on the campaign trail.

The main thing: Almost certainly helped herself with a strong performance that put her back into the mix. But she is still not presenting enough of a positive vision.

Grade: B-
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Santorum

Style: Wisely emphasized his travels around Iowa, as the only hopeful to hit all 99 Hawkeye State counties. Didn’t pound his Senate record, as he has in past debates.

Substance: Still too scattershot on the issues to break through.

His worst moment: None stand out.

His best moment: Human, conservative answer in talking about the importance of family and marriage.

The main thing: He has put in the time in Iowa and could still strike a spark, but in a campaign dominated by the debates, he remains an afterthought.

Grade: B-

Related Topics: Des Moines, Diane Sawyer, Drake University, George Stephanopoulos, Iowa, Mark Halperin, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, 2012 Elections, Analysis, News, Republican Party, Special Report, The Page

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