The Western Republican Presidential Debate found seven GOP candidates in rare form, rhetorical guns a’blazin’ as they attacked one another without mercy.
Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann attacked Herman Cain. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum attacked Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry looked like they might come to blows. And as he does so well, Ron Paul attacked legislators who vote for things.
Oh, and the crowd cheered for putting an electric fence on the border with Mexico. It’s an interesting election season, folks.
Here are tonight’s grades, in order of best to worst:
THE TOP TIER
HERMAN CAIN (1st Place, Grade: B+)
Mr. Cain’s “9-9-9” plan dominated the early portion of tonight’s debate, demonstrating that he is still having an impact on this race. Mr. Cain’s plan is vulnerable to attack, and I suspect he won’t be able to defend it successfully much longer. But he deflected his competitor’s attacks well tonight, and came away from the exchange (mostly) unscathed. On the whole, Mr. Cain continues to improve as a debater, knows how to deliver an applause line, and intuitively understands how to connect with conservative voters.
Mr. Cain had a couple of off-notes when he risked looking like an undisciplined flip flopper. He backed away from a comment he made earlier in the day about negotiating with terrorists, and again when he claimed he didn’t support TARP in 2008.
RICK SANTORUM (2nd Place, tie, Grade: B)
Sen. Santorum had a (mostly) good night, but lost a lot of points when he interrupted Mitt Romney for a solid 15 seconds, then said, “sorry, you’re out of time.” The audience booed him, and he looked like a bad sport.
That moment aside, he had one of his better performances. Mr. Santorum did a nice job of answering a question about his views on Latinos by praising their faith and commitment to family. He effectively attacked Gov. Perry regarding his previous support for TARP. He also scored some points against Mitt Romney on health care.
Since the beginning of the 24/7 media age in 1980, the more charismatic candidate has won every presidential election. Mr. Santorum conveys moral certitude, but lacks the sunny optimism that wins elections. Still, if he’s aiming directly for his narrow Evangelical base in Iowa, he had a good night.
RICK PERRY (3rd Place, Grade: B-)
Rick Perry came to play tonight. He was tough, steely, aggressive and nasty – and he demonstrated a (somewhat) better command of facts tonight.
At times, he overshot and verged on caricature – but this version of Rick Perry is much more likely to win the nomination than the one who showed up to the last three debates.
He passionately delivered an energy-centric jobs plan that would, he claimed, create 1.2 million jobs. He fought against the idea of building a fence along the entire border, instead making the case for an alternative solution.
Mr. Perry was effective when he attacked Mitt Romney for hiring an illegal immigrant – at least he was effective the first time he used the attack. When he tried to resurrect the attack minutes later, he stretched too far and earned boos from the crowd. When Mr. Romney accused Mr. Perry of attacking him because he’s had a tough few debates, Mr. Perry looked piiiiiisssed.
Still, awkward syntax and over-stretching aside, Mr. Perry asserted himself tonight as a candidate who plans to be in the race for a while. Pundits are already writing that he tried too hard and failed tonight – but his approach will likely appeal to many base voters, and I suspect his poll numbers will bounce a bit in the next few days.
MIDDLE OF THE PACK
MITT ROMNEY (4th Place, tie, Grade: C+)
Mitt Romney was more aggressive tonight than he’s been thus far. The Nevada crowd seemed to love his aggressive tone, but his tone won’t play as well in people’s living rooms. The condescending tone he used against his competitors brought out some of his most unlikeable qualities.
When Gov. Perry interrupted him, for example, Gov. Romney placed his hand on Rick Perry’s shoulder during a particularly heated moment. I can’t remember a moment at a debate when two candidates looked so close to coming to blows. He later patronized Rick Perry, scolding: “You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking, and I suggest that if you want to become President Of The United States, you have to let both people speak.”
When Sen. Santorum interrupted him, Gov. Romney channeled Ross Perot, shouting “May I finish? May I finish?”
Although Mr. Romney was solid during the second half of the debate, his aggressive responses showed that he still views Mr. Perry as a threat – despite the Texas governor’s dramatically declining poll numbers. It’s a fine line between tough and grating, and Mr. Romney was on the wrong side of that line tonight.
RON PAUL (4th Place, tie, Grade: C+)
As happens often, Rep. Paul found himself alone a few times tonight. For example, he pointed out that President Reagan negotiated with terrorists.
He offered a solid reply regarding storing nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as it related to states rights, and his opponents found rare agreement with his position.
This was generally a good debate for Dr. Paul, but his performance did little to change the dynamic of the race. He’s trailing badly in all national polls (he’s fared better in a few, mostly useless, straw polls), and tonight will not fundamentally re-set his place in the race.
MICHELE BACHMANN (4th Place, tie, Grade: C+)
Rep. Bachmann had a relatively good night – but like Dr. Paul, she did nothing to fundamentally re-set her place in this race. She had one particularly strong moment when she looked into the camera and appealed directly to women and mothers whose houses are threatened by foreclosure. She also demonstrated her knowledge of foreign affairs tonight.
None of that will matter. Her star has fallen, and she did nothing tonight to help herself earn a second act.
Update: A few readers rightly pointed out a Bachmann gaffe I missed: During one answer, she seemed to forget that Libya is in Africa.
TRAILING THE FIELD
NEWT GINGRICH (7th Place, Grade: C)
For most of tonight’s debate, Mr. Gingrich was a non-presence. He delivered a few winning applause lines, but he’s at his most effective when he shows his softer and more humorous side along with his more bellicose one. He failed to do so tonight.
As a media and presentation trainer, I appreciate strong language – so phrases such as “suicidally stupid” appeal to me. But his pedantic, finger-pointing, and angry responses won’t win him many new votes. Not one of his stronger performances.
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.