Candidate grades are based on both performance and success in using the debate to improve their standing in the nomination contest.
Style: Presented himself as a technocrat rather than a passionate leader.
Substance: Had his balanced budget rap down, and, more than usual, chose nitty-gritty detail over lofty rhetoric.
His worst moment: Got a little smug and testy when fighting with Santorum about earmarks.
His best moment: Long, strong answer defending religious liberty.
The main thing: Once again benefited from a friendly audience (presumably built, in part by his campaign). Displayed his long-running strength by hitting his current chief foe (Santorum) with bucket-loads of opposition research. Not at his best, but on a stage of limp performances, he was good enough to stay on top.
Style: Cool and low-key — almost to the point of boredom in some cutaways — despite an evident yearning for a comeback.
Substance: Offered more policy contrast with President Obama than anyone on the stage. Showed a commendable knowledge of Romney’s tax plan.
His worst moment: None stood out.
His best moment: Launched one of his patented crowd-pleasing attacks on the media, this time for its focus on contraception and Republicans in 2012, despite its dearth of questions about partial birth abortion and the Democrats in 2008.
The main thing: Avoided heavy criticism of his rivals, in order to focus on his “big ideas” brand. Reaffirmed that his energy and intellect entitle him to a place on the stage, but fell short of a game-changing performance.
Style: Pleasantly earnest overall; on occasion displayed his goofy and zany side.
Substance: Gave grand statements with few specifics, even when discussing his signature issues.
His worst moment: Lost the audience defending earmarks.
His best moment: Presented a spirited explanation of why he opposes bailouts.
The main thing: Fit into the mix with his colleagues more seamlessly than usual, but wandered down some paths that cost him crowd support. Remains a force in the race, currently, by working in tandem with Romney to help stymie Santorum.
Style: A tone-deaf mix of shrill emotion and clinical derision, employing each at the wrong time, especially when challenged by Romney.
Substance: Spun some solid opposition research on Romney and Paul at the start, but did little to sell his own ideas.
His worst moment: Gave a rambling, confusing defense of his spending record and support for earmarks.
His best moment: At the start of the debate, fleetingly promised to spend the night offering “solutions for everybody from the bottom up” (but then didn’t).
The main thing: Showed he wasn’t afraid of Romney, but played too much defense and fought battles on his rival’s terms. As in town meetings, he still tried too hard to answer the question asked, rather than pivoting to more favorable ground — a commendable instinct but dangerous in the presidential arena. One of his worst debates in recent months — particularly ill-timed since the moment was his to seize. He still might win some upcoming contests, but if Romney is victorious in Michigan and Arizona and wraps up the nomination in March, Team Santorum will look back at Mesa and sigh that it was the beginning of the end.