Political reporters change storylines more often than Larry King changes wives.
For the past three debates, the media narrative was framed as an apparent two-man race between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. But after Gov. Perry had a couple of lousy debates, the media narrative has shifted away from Rick Perry and onto businessman Herman Cain, who has suddenly soared to (or near) the top of several Republican polls.
But unexpectedly, my headline for tonight’s debate has less to do with the candidates and more to do with the moderators.
The moderators, led by PBS Host Charlie Rose, insisted upon serious, policy-focused answers – and the format seemed to bring out the best in the candidates. I hope other moderators are taking notes, as our nation would benefit from more debates like this one.
Here are tonight’s grades, in order of best to worst:
THE TOP TIER
MITT ROMNEY (1st Place, Grade: A)
Mitt Romney wears an almost permanently bemused expression that suggests he sees himself as above the fray. He is. Gov. Romney delivered another impressive performance tonight, successfully deflecting attacks and easily parrying with his opponents. He also displayed a sense of humor, joking with Charlie Rose, who accidentally called on the wrong person.
Mr. Romney is terrific at remaining on message. He steadfastly refuses to answer hypothetical questions that don’t advance his message, opting to transition to the points he wants to make instead.
Mr. Romney is far from the most inspiring candidate the GOP has ever seen. But there’s a reason he’s leading the polls, albeit it barely – what he doesn’t earn in love, he’s earning through hard work and competence.
HERMAN CAIN: (2nd Place, Grade: A-)
You have to give this to Herman Cain: He’s the only candidate whose economic plan (“9-9-9”) is becoming a household phrase. That’s good for him, in that it made him a primary focus during tonight’s debate – but it’s also problematic, as it will increasingly make him a target.
Mr. Cain had an advantage during tonight’s debate, which was focused almost exclusively on the economy. He has fared less well on foreign policy issues, and will be more vulnerable when questioned on those topics.
Mr. Cain had one off note tonight when he cited Alan Greenspan as his favorite Fed Chairman. That will likely receive press over the next few days, as Mr. Greenspan’s policies are regularly blamed for this economic crisis.
NEWT GINGRICH (3rd Place, Grade: B)
Former House Speaker Gingrich appeared tough and smart again tonight, looking wiser than most of his competitors. He would have received a higher grade if he didn’t look so angry during a few of his answers. Yes, the American people are angry – but they have consistently rewarded presidential candidates who deliver tough truths with sunny optimism.
One off note occurred when Mr. Gingrich said that Fmr. Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank should go to prison for their legislation (which was approved by both Chambers of Congress). Mr. Gingrich’s message will never be heard if he continues to offer the press such irresistible sound bites.
MIDDLE OF THE PACK
RON PAUL (4th Place, Grade: B-)
Sure, Dr. Paul delivered the same answers he always does about the Fed, the gold standard, and government intervention. But the seated, roundtable seemed to soften his delivery a bit, making him look more like a senior statesman than like an old crank.
RICK SANTORUM (5th Place, tie, Grade: C+)
Former Senator Santorum is deeply passionate about his beliefs, and he threw some of the strongest punches during tonight’s debate. He convincingly argued that Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” plan couldn’t pass Congress, while his could. Still, there’s little optimistic about Mr. Santorum – and the less charismatic candidate has lost every general election since the beginning of the 24/7 media age in 1980.
MICHELE BACHMANN (5th Place, tie, Grade: C+)
Rep. Bachmann had a good performance tonight, but did little to catapult herself back to the top of the GOP field. Plus, I can’t help wondering if her regular talking point of raising 28 kids – 23 foster children and five biological children – makes her appear eccentric to some voters.
Ms Bachmann got a good line off when she said if you turn the “9-9-9” plan upside down, the devil is in the details. The problem, though, is that she’s talking about Mr. Cain’s plan; nobody is talking about hers.
RICK PERRY (7th Place, Grade: C)
Rick Perry looks like he was culled from central casting on a Hollywood lot, but sounds like he was culled from the George W. Bush school of public speaking.
He may have staunched the bleeding tonight with a “do no harm” debate – but he did little to convince voters that he would be able to effectively debate President Obama in a presidential debate. Nor did he manage to get off a single memorable line.
It’s a good thing for his campaign that he’s raised a lot of money. He’s not going to win the nomination by being a convincing debater, so he’ll need the cash to produce slick, scripted ads.
TRAILING THE FIELD
JON HUNTSMAN (8th Place, Grade: D+)
Jon Huntsman is the uncle at your family picnic who makes a bunch of cringe-worthy jokes that require you to offer polite forced laughter. Tonight, his shtick seemed more appropriate for a bad comic warming up the headliner at Yuk Yuks than for a candidate for president.
By my count, he started three of his answers with jokes – that Washington, DC is the “gas” capital of the nation, that the “9-9-9” plan sounds like the price of a pizza, and that he wasn’t going to make Mitt Romney’s religion an issue (he, too, is Mormon). It’s a shame, because Gov. Huntsman is a thoughtful candidate. But his jokes distract from his more serious points, and he has missed almost every opportunity to break through.
Wondering what measurements I used to help grade tonight’s debate? Here are the seven traits all eight winning general election candidates have had since the beginning of the 24/7 media age in 1980.
Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? Please leave your opinion in the comment section below, but remember the blog’s comment policy – no ad hominem attacks or pejorative name-calling will be posted.