Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their standing in the nomination contest.
Style: After unleashing an emotional surge in his first answer, responding to John King’s question about his ex’s “open marriage” charge, he impressively calibrated his tone the rest of the night to be less volatile (most of the time!).
Substance: Smartly worked his South Carolina-specific jobs ideas into a general answer. Still not wonking out fully, which may be a good idea.
His worst moment: Responding to tough Santorum charge, repeatedly said “grandiose” when he meant “grand” in describing his own behavior and actions.
His best moment: Turned opening question about ex’s “open marriage” charge into a tour de force denunciation of the media, gaining the upper hand as well as another standing ovation.
The main thing: Started with the kind of ballsy, confident, defiant, explosive extended answer to the edgy first question that almost no living politician could pull off – or would risk trying. Then shifted gears and was confident and engaged all night. It is possible the “open marriage” allegations, despite Gingrich’s denial and indignant, impassioned response, will hurt him badly with women voters. But for the media and the audience in the debate hall, it was the signature moment of Newt’s campaign.
Style: Self-possessed and upbeat, not visibly psyched out by the stakes or his recent blunders. Did a good job of starting his answers where he – not the moderator – wanted to begin.
Substance: Explained his Massachusetts health care plan better than he usually does but later got lost in the weeds when defensively describing his abortion record as governor.
His worst moment: Once again sounded cagey and political trying to explain why he won’t release his tax returns until April, drawing some scattered boos.
His best moment: Hit Obama on corporate welfare, Solyndra, NLRB and Keystone XL in one dramatic answer – along with an effective slap at the straw man of Republicans questioning free enterprise.
The main thing: As always, strongest when going after President Obama. Took a pass on criticizing Gingrich’s personal life and/but never engaged his main rival, even on the Bain/free market debate that is in his wheelhouse. If the polls are accurate and Gingrich had momentum before this debate, Romney didn’t do anything to slow it.
Style: Steady, even and ultimately powerful, but overall lacking the voltage of Gingrich and Romney.
Substance: Did not offer enough specifics to stand out.
His worst moment: Said he wouldn’t change a thing about his campaign and was proud to make it to the Final Four – sounding suspiciously like he would be content to take his consolation prize and go home, when above all else he needs to project bigness.
His best moment: Systematically took on Romney and Gingrich on health care and abortion.
The main thing: Pulled off several effective surgical strikes on Gingrich’s record and temperament. After a slow start, got stronger and earned his way into the debate center ring, with his toughest performance to date. In the end, though, his effort was insufficient to pull him to the top of South Carolina contention.
Style: Showed off his classic phlegmatic animation but seemed detached from the main event.
Substance: More specific than usual in talking about job creation but fuzzy on whether veterans should get extra government help.
His worst moment: Failed to seize the moment to contrast himself on health care with the three other candidates.
His best moment: None stood out.
The main thing: His lack of engagement in the day-to-day rhythms of the campaign left him out of the dialogue most of the night. He didn’t suffer his usual battering on foreign policy, but failed to take the opportunity to go on the offensive in his areas of strength.