Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their standing in the nomination contest.
Style: Sharp, commanding, wily and more comfortable than he has been in many a debate. Cleverly didn’t challenge Gingrich for the Ronald Reagan mantle and remained absolutely calm when under attack, rattling the former Speaker. Exhibited a cool, convincing tone and demeanor that could actually get him to the White House. Boffo perf could have been in part due to new debate coach Brett O’Donnell, who crafts and encourages the focus Romney exhibited tonight.
Substance: Fluid on immigration and Cuba policy but didn’t offer much on jobs.
His worst moment: Had a few bumpy moments during a colloquy with Santorum over RomneyCare.
His best moment: Threw Gingrich’s Freddie and Fannie investment charges back at him, pointing out Newt’s own investments in the mortgage giants, drawing audience huzzahs.
The main thing: Defended his wealth and Cayman Islands account better than he has all week. Pivoted off the defensive whenever challenged, rising fast and strong to confront Gingrich when criticized on immigration, projecting indignation that seemed genuinely genuine. Took fewer opportunities than usual to hit Obama but got in a super strong closing answer contrasting himself with the incumbent. Focused instead on hurling opposition research hits against Gingrich rat-tat-tat, on a wide range of issues, including Newt’s advocacy of new spending projects, moon colonization, and more. Might have even won back some of the confidence of conservatives that he can beat Obama. Tan, rested and ready to win Florida, unless Gingrich can find a way to change the game without the benefit of another debate.
Style: Still not dynamic enough to stop the highly evolved “two-man race” meme but admirably diligent and patient in trying to break through.
Substance: Flexed knowledge about foreign policy when talking about Latin America.
His worst moment: None stood out.
His best moment: Pulled a Gingrich by animatedly attacking Blitzer for lingering on questions about Romney’s and Newt’s wealth instead of focusing on real issues, drawing cheers from the crowd.
The main thing: Did his signature “Romney and Gingrich are too liberal to beat Obama” riff, but, again, not early enough or consistently enough. Nevertheless, plenty of voters could find him smart, appealing and above the fray. If he grows his vote in Florida, it could stop Gingrich’s chances dead in their tracks.
Style: Was angry at Romney throughout the night and, thus distracted, was unable to find his groove.
Substance: Showed his stuff on immigration but foolishly and easily was led down the path of waxing about his space exploration dreams.
His worst moment: Stayed on the defensive over his ties to Freddie Mac, when he badly needed to move on.
His best moment: Gracious, disarming homage to the wives of his rivals, before delivering a soft-spoken explanation of why his own spouse would be a great First Lady.
The main thing: Rattled and rolled by the multi-front pounding he has taken this week. Failed almost completely to drive any of the messages that have fueled his ascent. The audience was allowed to cheer but the room wasn’t as friendly as in the South Carolina debates. Looked silly when he suggested to moderator Wolf Blitzer that he didn’t want to deal with his past statements about Romney’s exotic overseas bank accounts and then instantly was goaded by Romney into peevishly and inelegantly addressing it. Seemed totally thrown off by Romney’s sudden ability to fight back with bite and courage. Those in Romney World who have been pushing the premise that Gingrich seems increasingly unhinged got a lot of data points in this debate.
Style: Seemed uncommonly willing and ready to mix it up with his rivals. Cheeky, spry and funny, especially when talking about his (excellent) health.
Substance: Got in some good points about taxation and foreign policy.
His worst moment: Missed his opportunity to really hammer home his ideas for job creation.
His best moment: Hilariously and honestly said he didn’t care about the issue of Romney’s and Gingrich’s ties to the mortgage industry.
The main thing: More personally appealing than he’s been in past debates, but failed to highlight his positions that would differentiate himself enough from the field or give undecided voters full confidence in his presidential potential.