Grading the Night at the Beach

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: At his best: funny, lively, tough, brash, challenging. Indulged in some journalist-bashing, too.

Substance: Focused more on his record than on policy.

His worst moment: Opening defense of his shift to negative campaigning was as incoherent as it was baffling.

His best moment: Extended colloquy with questioner Juan Williams over his past statements about minorities and jobs included flares of passion from the former Speaker and a standing ovation from the audience.

The main thing: After a slow start, he dominated the stage for the rest of the night. Solid with his GOP audience on almost every answer. If there is a correlation between debate presentation and poll standing, Newt should get a bump (unless he undermines his performance by going off message Tuesday morning).

Grade: A-
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Perry

Style: Clear, consistent and relaxed. Was precise and firm when calling on Romney to release his tax returns.

Substance: Offered some strong answers on key issues, but still not trying hard enough to win this fight; when given a chance to talk about his signature flat tax, he just short-handed it.

His worst moment: Interrupted a Romney-Santorum dust-up in which the Pennsylvanian was making inroads on the frontrunner with an out-of-place 10th Amendment paean.

His best moment: Decisive and crowd-pleasing defense of the Marines who have been publicly chastised for urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters killed in battle.

The main thing: Played his state’s rights card, big in South Carolina, whenever he could and offered a strong sell of his Texas job record, although he disappeared in the middle of the debate. But if he can do this well in Thursday’s event, he might be a player after all in the first Southern primary.

Grade: B
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Romney

Style: Less dominant than in some past debates and/but at times seemed a little smug about his commanding frontrunner status. Was well-prepared to address his Bain history, but didn’t get pressed to wade into the tougher parts of that record.

Substance: Still doing multiple bullet points rather than drilling down on specifics.

His worst moment: His garbled answer about his hunting cred will be mocked for a good long time.

His best moment: Handled flip-flopper question without sounding defensive and pivoted to go back on message.

The main thing: Tried to employ his kill-his-rivals-with-praise strategy but felt compelled to go after Santorum when pressed early on. Exhibited rather unattractive I’m-the-frontrunner prerogatives. Lost some focus as Gingrich took charge. Delayed the day of reckoning on both Bain and the release of his tax returns, but his debate answers probably won’t hurt him with voters.

Grade: B
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Santorum

Style: Calm and confident and well put together.

Substance: Strong on explaining unemployment insurance reform and welfare reform.

His worst moment: Still sounds too senatorial and not amply presidential when addressing foreign policy, such as on Israel’s security.

His best moment: Boldly faced off with Romney on felons’ voting rights.

The main thing: His authoritative drive to become the dominant Romney Alternative was hindered by a powerhouse Gingrich.

Grade: C+
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Paul

Style: Looser and more playful than usual.

Substance: Took little opportunity to present his agenda and had trouble explaining his view of how to safely cut defense spending.

His worst moment: Barely spoke during the debate’s first thirty-five minutes.

His best moment: Started with a burst of accessible humor when discussing his negative attack ads against Santorum.

The main thing: Marbled-mouthed on defense cuts and the assassination of bin Laden. The crowd was ready to cheer for him but he didn’t give them sufficient cause.

Grade: C

Related Topics: Mark Halperin, 2012 Elections, News, Republican Party, Special Report, The Page

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