Alright, Tony, you wanted a fight. Here goes.
Actually, I agree with a lot of what you said, but rank them differently. Fightin’ words! But here’s how I rate the combatants. I’m not ranking them by my own preference here; this is my take on how they did in the debate versus what they needed to do.
1. Mitt Romney, because he had the most to lose and didn’t fumble. There’s a lot to be said for composure under pressure (right, Miami Heat?), and as the poll frontrunner, Mitt’s under some pressure. He almost had a Ford moment with the line about turning Afghanistan over to the “Taliban army” but caught himself, and otherwise reminded uncommitted viewers about his big selling point — his business experience. The economy stinks, but Mitt seems to be a plausible fix-it man. RomneyCare is still a huge knock against him, but in my mind not a deal breaker, for this reason: I don’t think a President Romney elected in ’08 would have passed ObamaCare, and I definitely don’t think a Romney elected in 2012 would keep ObamaCare.
2. Michele Bachmann, who had a breakout performance. Most viewers probably hadn’t seen much of Bachmann outside interviews on Fox and MSNBC. She came off as bright, substantive, youthful and interesting. She played up her House experience in a way that connected it to how she would act as president, and sounded plausible. Her family background drives home her social con values, but she’s a credible fiscal hawk too, and showed both sides in the debate.
3. Herman Cain. He smashed in the first debate, performed solidly in the second, but I’m starting to worry that he’s a one-trick pony. He’s great on economics and organizational answers, but weaker on questions outside those domains. He’ll need to broaden his comfort zone to make any upwards moves. Last night he looked like he would make a great Commerce Secretary.
4. Tim Pawlenty, who was solid but disappeared as the debate wore on. To me, T-Paw is a pretty complete candidate on paper, but the whiff on ObamneyCare was a bit disconcerting — if you hit a fellow candidate in the press, own the criticism and follow up on it. Gen. Grant didn’t win the Civil War because he was pretty or a military genius; he followed up on his victories and eventually damaged Lee enough to force him to surrender. T-Paw needs a bit of Grant. Overall I think the pressure of needing to chip away at Romney without going full negative got to Pawlenty a bit.
5. Newt Gingrich, smartest man in the room, but a bit too much of an Al Gore for me. He isn’t wooden like Gore, but he gets into the inside ball stuff too much, and got most passionate either when challenged or when discussing space policy. Look, I spent a few years at NASA and am a true space fanboy, but space policy isn’t the most pressing issue facing us. Gingrich doesn’t really like to debate, he likes to lecture.
6. Ron Paul, great on constitutional questions, horrible on foreign policy. As usual. And he delivers a little too much “Get off my lawn!” attitude for my tastes. His “live and let live” attitude toward al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen will get innocent people killed.
7. Rick Santorum, not so much because he performed poorly but because he just didn’t justify his presence there. He’s a former Senator who currently holds no office. He really needs to make a strong impression to last long in the race, and he didn’t. He has to do what Herman Cain did in the first debate and Michele Bachmann did in the second — have such a strong performance that everyone sits up and takes notice. That didn’t happen. As you note, Tony, Santorum really didn’t do or say anything memorable. He was there and he was solid, but otherwise, meh.