Mitt Romney = A
He didn't just run circles around everyone. He ran squares and isosceles triangles. He can talk forever on economic issues; whereas, Rick Perry's answer for everything is just two words -- "energy independence", which means that, at least, he can't literally be accused of one-word answers.
Romney was that rarest of phenomenons last night. He was placed in an environment that perfectly suited him, and was close to perfect in it.
Everyone lowers expectations for debates. Romney neither lowered nor raised them before last night's seated scrum. He just went in and showed his economic chops without showing off.
It's exactly why Democrats fear him the most. Right now, he's running about evenly with Barack Obama in national polls, but that's before debates or any significant exposure before the nation. You put him in a debate, with a bad economy and Barack Obama on the other side, and even Mesopotamia would prefer taking its chances against Alexander the Great.
It's been said before, but above all, he exudes competence, which is what voters want. Instead of putting on ideology on and then trying to fit his conclusions around it, he seems to find conclusions and then use his ideology to explain them.
In short, it would be very difficult for the Obama campaign to demonize him as a dangerous ideologue, which is exactly what they'll try to do to any Republican nominee, including Romney. That's working against him in the primary, but it would do wonders for him in the general, and he seems to be taking a long-term view (quite different, though, from his rhetoric on immigration, which I still find to be alarmingly dangerous for his general election hopes and pure political pander, considering his past record on it).
Rick Perry = D
He looked about as comfortable as J-Lo at a Red Roof Inn.
He had to show improvement at this debate (which wouldn't be terribly hard, considering his previous two), but actually did worse.
There were a few things working against him.
First, himself. He showed no signs of having prepped for this thing.
Second, the debate was about the economy. If Perry has a wheelhouse, that should be it. After all, he's the Texas Economy Guy. But debates are often forward-looking, and he didn't seem to have a plan for the national economy beyond energy independence.
Third, he was sitting down. Perry's a stump-type politician -- one who seems to gain energy by standing on his feet. A panel and Charlie Rose don't seem to be his strong suit.
Perry seems to be conceding, already, that he sucked at the debate and probably won't ever win Frank Luntz's dial-game. He might be fine with that, but donors won't be.
Jon Huntsman = B-
I try to watch these things without polls in my head, and he actually performed like a top-tier candidate, even though he's at 0% in this week's Washington Post/Bloomberg poll, and to be fair, Romney was a curve-buster last night (speaking of which, don't you think Marco Rubio was a curve-buster in every class he ever took, right down to kindergarten?).
He made a couple jokes that worked, and a couple that didn't. That's not to say that jokes define a debate performance, but they matter an awful lot, and for once, Huntsman's weren't all awful.
I suspect we haven't heard the last of him in New Hampshire, even though he's run one of the most bizarre campaigns out there, and has vacillated from serious-to-silly-to serious, from civil-minded to civil war-minded, and has cast too far an ideological net.
But he just looks and talks like a New Hampshire independent, and I think his debate will help him with that group, while doing little for conservatives. But that's still a net win for him.
Newt Gingrich = B-
You can't really write about Newt Gingrich without using the word "pugilistic", which is good, because pugilistic needs a comeback (just like pump sneakers).
As usual, Gingrich took his shots at the media, at Democrats, and at no one on the stage. He's running for respect right now -- respect with the base that abandoned him, and he's doing quite well.
But for once, he didn't come across as the smartest guy in the room. That went to Romney, although Newt certainly exuded a competence of his own.
The only problem for him is that angry people don't win things (Mel Gibson and Ozzie Guillen, notwithstanding), and he's got no campaign infrastructure or plan to win beyond the debates. Also, he has two ex-wives and cheated on them.
Still, he's got a certain likeability in these things -- a curmudgeonly quality that's charming for a few hours. Sort of like Al Pacino's character in Scent of a Woman without the humanizing blindness. Newt seems to be stabilizing a bit. He'll probably come out of this whole process worse off than before (remember that, in early polls, he was near the front-runners), but he's probably staved off disaster.
Herman Cain = C+
My favorite tweet of the night -- someone found a Godfather's menu with large pizza fries for $9.99.
As I suspected, 9-9-9 is starting to wear thin. As Cain rises in the polls and demands to be taken seriously, more and more are asking for serious details about his plan, and his response is that its beauty and effectiveness lies in its simplicity. That might be true about BrickBreaker, but it's not about the American economy.
Cain's gotcha question for Romney was a classic case of the hubris that can develop in an echo chamber: Why does your plan have 59 points and mine has just three, he wanted to know?
That's echo chamber. Cain's been hearing lots of praise from supporters about his 9-9-9 plan, and thinks that even its weakness is its strength.
Further, Rick Santorum leveled a devastating charge about it, and you'll probably hear more hits in the future. If Cain's 9-9-9 plan starts to lose its currency, he'll fall with it. That's Perry's only hope from this debate -- that Cain's fade started here -- and it's not a bad one. However bad Perry's performing, he won't lose to Bachmann, and if it turns into 9-11 on Cain's 9-9-9, then Perry is back in the game. One of the reasons he's struggled at these debates is that he's lost focus, and that tends to happen with a larger cast of candidates. But a one-on-one debate might take care of that.
Rick Santorum = B
He's like a 40 year-old athlete who's making a comeback after suffering a career-ending injury at 32. He's so happy to be there. You can see it in his face, and especially in one telling moment.
When it came time for candidates to question each other, he delivered a monologue as long and tedious as a Terrence Malick film. And like a Malick film, it didn't really have an ending.
SANTORUM: We are in the "live free or die!" state, and I oppose the single biggest government intrusion into the private sector, the Wall Street bailout, the TARP program. I opposed it because it violated the principles of our Constitution, the spirit of our Constitution, and because the experience I had that if you open up the door of government involvement in the private sector, some president will and in fact did drive a truck through it and explode the size of the federal government and constrict our freedom.
The interesting thing here is, is the four people on this panel that actually supported TARP at the time of its passage are the people who say that they are the anti-Washington candidates, that they are the business candidates. And they are the four on this program that supported the Washington bailout, giving Washington, naively, I would say, tools to constrict our freedom. And since...
TUMULTY: So do you have a question for one of them?
Still, for the most part, he does really well at these things, though he never seems quite presidential. Instead, he looks more like a really effective Assemblyman or state senator, whose attacks on the others are always spot-on and disorienting.
Some have wondered whether he'll be the next to catch fire. I, ultimately, don't think he will, because he's seen as so unelectable, thanks to his huge loss in critical Pennsylvania and the Google thing (also, the Assemblyman thing), but he keeps launching attacks that land -- both in the debates and airwaves.
His background story -- which always includes key words (like "steel town") that are meant to make him relatable -- is getting a bit tedious, though.
As I've written before: If you ever want your child to run for president, move to a declining Midwestern town, stick your kid in a mine for a few hours a day, put him in a public school that's failing, go bankrupt for a year, join a union so you can become disenchanted with it later on and have blue-collar credibility, buy a house near a meat-packing town, default on your mortgage, and then send your kid to an Ivy league school.
That's how you become president.
UPDATE: Oy. So sorry, everyone, that I missed Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann in my fatigued haze. Paul was Paul. He is who he is. I've never seen a debate where he wasn't exactly like the one before, and so I'll hand him a "B". Clear message, but not presidential. Bachmann didn't make herself any more relevant, so she gets a "C".