The leader board for the Republican nomination has changed more often than Mitt Romney’s policy positions.
Over the past six months, Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich have all led the Republican field.
But the main story tonight wasn’t Newt Gingrich’s sudden rise to the top of the polls. Rather, it was the significant amount of airtime the so-called second-tier candidates received, namely Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. Both made the most of their chances.
Here are tonight’s grades, in order of best to worst:
THE TOP TIER
JON HUNTSMAN (1st Place, Grade: A)
I never thought Gov. Huntsman would land at the top of my debate scorecard, but he had a good night.
Instead of making lame jokes in this debate (or doing anything to evoke last Saturday’s dreadful Saturday Night Live appearance), Mr. Huntsman made the most of the significant airtime he was offered in this debate.
He was more focused tonight, looking both tougher and more serious than in earlier debates. He made his most genuine connection with the live audience to date, regularly eliciting cheers and applause for his answers. He also stood up well when Mitt Romney attacked one of his points, showing more backbone in a debate than he has thus far.
As a former diplomat, Mr. Huntsman still has a propensity to utter too many carefully calibrated words before getting to his point – but he gained strength as the debate continued, and he emerges as tonight’s winner.
RON PAUL (2nd Place, Grade: A-)
Okay, Ron Paul fans. I’ve been hard on Dr. Paul through the debate season. No one as un-telegenic has won a general election since the dawn of television, and his delivery evokes The Simpsons’ Montgomery Burns more than a serious presidential candidate.
But Rep. Paul had a terrific night, and made the most of the extra airtime he was afforded in this debate. Instead of merely appearing strident, Dr. Paul made his points with a bit of humor, bewilderment, and bemusement. He held his own in a tough exchange against Newt Gingrich, standing his ground while remaining amiable.
His comments on Israel will likely make some headlines tomorrow, as he’s the only candidate not to offer almost unequivocal military support to the critical American ally.
MICHELE BACHMANN (3rd Place, Grade: B+)
If someone had told me I’d be ranking the candidates in this order tonight, I would have told them to turn their sheet of paper upside down. But I call ‘em like I see ‘em, and Rep. Bachmann had a good night.
Ms. Bachmann has perfected the art of taking shots at her fellow candidates with a smile. She called Rick Perry out for being “naïve” on aid to Pakistan, and directly challenged Newt Gingrich on immigration. She may not have landed a knock-out blow to either, but she reasserted herself with a demonstration of the political skills that briefly allowed her to flirt with the lead. She also demonstrated an impressive knowledge of foreign policy.
Ms. Bachmann may not gain much ground as a result of this debate, but she likely encouraged her supporters with tonight’s performance.
MIDDLE OF THE PACK
NEWT GINGRICH (4th Place, tie, Grade: B)
Tonight introduced the newer, gentler, frontrunner version of Newt Gingrich. The former House Speaker didn’t bring the same antagonism toward the media or his questioners as he has in virtually every other debate tonight, meaning he disappeared into the background a bit tonight.
That’s not to say he didn’t have another solid debate performance – he did. He offered a terrific answer early on regarding Timothy McVeigh, for example, eliciting cheers from the crowd.
It will be interesting to see how his answer regarding illegal immigration plays with the GOP base. He said that if a person has been in the United States for 25 years and has deep roots into their communities, they should be able to stay in the country. That may sound obvious to most Americans, but the conservative base takes a hardline on immigration and may view his answer as support for a backdoor amnesty.
MITT ROMNEY (4th Place, tie Grade: B)
Early in the debate, Gov. Romney launched an aggressive attack on fellow candidate Jon Huntsman for his answer on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Considering Gov. Huntsman’s low poll ratings, Mr. Romney’s condescending attack came across as an over-reaction. He later went after Ron Paul over budget cuts.
Mr. Romney’s tone has become one of almost permanent “Why am I here” annoyance, and he’s at his least appealing when he presents himself that way. It makes him appear frustrated that he hasn’t been able to break through into a clear lead.
Still, Mr. Romney knows his facts and knows how to win an argument. For example, he got the better of Ron Paul in his answer about defense cuts.
Tonight’s performance will likely leave the needle unchanged for Romney, who has struggled to break the 25 percent mark in Republican polls.
TRAILING THE FIELD
RICK SANTORUM (6th Place, Grade: C)
There’s little new to say about Rick Santorum. He’s passionate and knowledgeable, but also sour and strident. He hasn’t grown as a candidate or a debater, and he’ll be one of only a few candidates never to have had a shot at or near the lead. Tonight once again showed why.
Many people are also commenting on Sen. Santorum’s “gaffe,” in which he called Africa a country (it’s a continent). I have little doubt Mr. Santorum knows the difference, and don’t think it’s revelatory of any deeper lack of understanding. Slips of the tongue happen, and this one is no big deal.
RICK PERRY (7th Place, Grade: C-)
I could comment here on Gov. Perry’s halting answers, distractingly sweaty upper lip, or his bizarre opening statement about his wife (it was supposed to be about foreign policy).
The truth is, none of that really matters. Mr. Perry’s tone was better-calibrated tonight, but he didn’t make a dent in this debate. He may have stopped the bleeding from his “oops” moment two weeks ago, but he flirted with utter irrelevance in tonight’s debate, which will likely do little to calm his nervous donors.
HERMAN CAIN (8th Place, Grade: D-)
Remember that Happy Days episode when Fonzie jumped the shark? This debate was that episode for Herman Cain.
Foreign policy is undoubtedly Mr. Cain’s kryptonite (well, that, plus former female employees). A candidate can hide behind empty bluster for only so long before his policy ignorance is exposed; tonight was the night it was. There are many reasons to bomb Iran (or not), for example, but Mr. Cain seemed enamored with the idea that we couldn’t bomb it primarily because it is too mountainous.
Mr. Cain couldn’t even get the moderator’s name right, referring to Wolf Blitzer as “Blitz.” This was a bad night for Mr. Cain, who will not get another shot at the top.
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.