Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their standing in the nomination contest.
Style: Relaxed and gracious. Showed uncharacteristic public emotion in talking about the promise of the Ryan-Wyden Medicare plan. Sidestepped moderators’ encouragement to challenge Gingrich’s electability and his jobs attacks.
Substance: Consistent and on message.
His worst moment: Needlessly drawn into an extended colloquy with Fox News’ Chris Wallace about his lengthy record of issue shifts.
His best moment: Made the case for his own jobs record, rather than acknowledge Gingrich’s criticism.
The main thing: Recovered his presidential demeanor from the early debates. Smart, focused, big-brained and cool, with no attacks on his fellow GOPers. Repeatedly took process questions and turned them into opportunities to sell his record and contrast with President Obama (most notably on Iran and the US drone). Along with Santorum, owned the economy as an issue. If strong performances from Bachmann, Santorum and Paul halt the Gingrich momentum, Romney could ride this debate to an Iowa victory – and the nomination.
Style: Calm and self-assured. Kept her eye on the camera, rather than the moderators. Like a forensic pro, answered the questions the way she wanted to instead of following the questioners’ lead.
Substance: Strong on the US Constitution and on Iran.
Her worst moment: None stood out.
Her best moment: Clean, aggressive hit on Gingrich’s role peddling influence for Freddie Mac, even after Gingrich rebutted her.
The main thing: Tough, persistent and persuasive, took the fight to frontrunner Gingrich with force, including on abortion. Ditto with her hits on Paul. On message both when presenting her own strengths and highlighting her opponents’ weaknesses. Commanding throughout and forced her way into the center of things all evening.
Style: Confident and more presidential than in past debates. No longer cowed by the media’s attempts to paint him into irrelevance.
Substance: Offered a good litany on how to create jobs.
His worst moment: Gave a reasonable Iran answer but missed an opportunity to establish some major foreign policy mojo.
His best moment: Concrete pledge to repeal all Obama regulations.
The main thing: Played up his intensive Iowa campaigning, assessed the economy and bragged on his conservative record without going overboard. Took strength from the hard work he’s done on the ground and is clearly focused on the voters, not the media. Made the most of the final pre-Iowa debate.
Style: Cheerfully began with a Christmas greeting, then became pedantic, gruff and defensive. Regained some humor when joking about Romney’s “zany” remark.
Substance: Failed to drive much of a positive message, except on immigration.
His worst moment: Waded into the Freddie Mac thicket in detail, without enacting the classic debate move of pivoting to a positive message.
His best moment: Bashed Obama with a clever, lively Keystone XL pipeline answer.
The main thing: Newt was Newt, with unfettered commentary on the legacy of Reagan, his own bipartisan work with Bill Clinton and Obama’s purported radical agenda. But too often let his frustration show when confronted and was careless with the facts. His opponents claim he is slipping from the top slot as voters focus more on his political and personal warts; if true, this debate will propel the slide.
Style: As mainstream as he can get (except on foreign policy); direct and specific, rather than philosophical and theoretical.
Substance: Thoughtful and intense, but too maudlin, without showcasing a positive agenda or optimistic ideas.
His worst moment: His defense of his record on seeking pork for his district sounded uncharacteristically mealy-mouthed and shifty.
His best moment: Deftly made a case for his electability by talking about his popular issue positions.
The main thing: As always, a crowd favorite without pandering. If a large slice of the Republican electorate has become isolationist, Paul used this debate to position for victory in the caucuses. But probably needlessly turned off others with the same answers.
Style: Smart and serious, but still searching for the right tone that highlights the many attractive parts of his personality.
Substance: Took China question in his wheelhouse and handled it deftly. Failed to break through with his core reform message.
His worst moment: Disappeared for more than thirty minutes after his first answer.
His best moment: Aggressively laid out his foreign policy vision, taking extra time to do so, even after the bell sounded twice.
The main thing: Grandstanding and attack-dog rhetoric are not parts of his candidate constitution; debates remain a challenge.
Style: Still struggling to project a winning balance of humor and leadership.
Substance: Made no attempt to score points on policy detail.
His worst moment: His canned opening line about Tim Tebow fell flat.
His best moment: Whipped up the crowd with anti-Washington rhetoric, after hitting Gingrich for influence peddling.
The main thing: Overall, showed improved performance, perhaps liberated by being in the no-pressure second tier. But, except for a few strong moments, was too passive, indistinct and out of the mix.