We watched — and live-blogged! — the whole thing. Below is our first cut at who won and who lost during the 105 minutes (or so) of debating at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.
Agree or disagree with our picks? The comments section awaits.
* Mitt Romney: Slow and steady won the debate for the former Massachusetts governor. He started off a bit shaky and seemed slightly off his game when Texas Gov. Rick Perry went on the attack right from the start. But, Romney showed his experience and steadied himself as the proceedings wore on — repeatedly giving answers that sounded reasonable and, dare we say it, presidential. Romney continues to execute his strategy: focus on President Obama and the economy while avoiding too much back and forth with his Republican rivals. It worked (again) tonight.
* Jon Huntsman: After a nonexistent performance in the August Iowa debate, the former Utah governor was much more part of the conversation this time around — delivering jabs to Romney and Perry as he tried to contrast his record in the Beehive State with theirs. Huntsman also looked like he belonged on the stage tonight — a major change from his August showing. His biggest problem remains that his tonal approach to the race — sensible moderation — still doesn’t seem to fit the Republican primary electorate. But, for tonight, Huntsman did himself proud.
* First 45 minutes Rick Perry: With all eyes on him, the Texas governor started out strong — delivering a solid answer on jobs and showing a willingness to mix it up with Romney. He was confident without being brash and seemed well versed — or at least well rehearsed — on the issues of the day. If the debate ended after 45 minutes, we might be talking about how Perry had dispelled all doubts about his readiness for the national glare of a presidential race and all it entails.
* NBC/Politico: In politics, it’s just as important to be lucky as it is to be good. NBC and Politico were both with a well-timed debate that gave America a chance to take an extended look at Perry, and a series of quality questions that forced the candidates to sometimes go beyond their talking points. The first 45 minutes of the debate were, without question, the highlight of the race so far. Kudos.
* Rick Santorum: The focus on Bachmann during the June New Hampshire debate and the August Iowa tilt overshadowed two solid performances by the former Pennsylvania Senator. Santorum isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but for social conservatives looking for someone who is with them on every issue, he might well be the guy. Santorum came across as knowledgeable and credible — two adjectives that any candidate would like to have describe a debate performance.
* Michele Bachmann: The Minnesota Congresswoman was a total nonentity in the debate. At one point, she didn’t say a single word for more than 20 minutes. Bachmann supporters will almost certainly blame the moderators for freezing her out but she needed to find ways to inject herself into the various fights between the likes of Perry, Romney and Huntsman. Bachmann seemed to get the message towards the end of the debate but it was already too late. It felt like she was irrelevant to the conversation tonight — and that’s a bad place for her to be.
* Last Hour Rick Perry: After a strong start, Perry seemed to lose focus — meandering on his answer on Social Security and badly fumbling on climate change. Some of Perry’s struggles in the middle portion of the debate had to do with the fact that he was getting tough questions and having to weather a steady attack from his opponents — he joked at one point that he had become a “pinata” — but that’s what you get when you’re the frontrunner. Perry salvaged the second half of the debate with a very strong answer on the death penalty. But his uneven performance will likely keep the conversation about whether he is a clear frontrunner alive, which is not what the Perry forces wanted.
* Newt Gingrich: Bashing the media for trying to get Republicans to disagree with one another is a sure applause line in front of a GOP crowd. But, in a debate the whole point is for the candidates to, well, debate their positions on issues. Elections are about choices so the best way to inform people about their options is to probe the candidates on where they differ with one another. Right?
* Raise your hand questions: Only one “by a show of hands” query made it into the debate. The Fix is a sucker for lightning round-type questions but they were a major loser tonight.
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